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Decelerated Reader

This morning at breakfast my daughter sadly eyed the book I’d gotten her for Chanukah, Alice in Quantumland. This is the sort of nerdy, unusual book I love to buy—once we’re done with it we’ll donate it to our library and hopefully they’ll make it available to other nerdy unusual kids in our community.

But why was she sad?

A book about quantum physics for kids! Featuring a girl! How could AR pass this up?

A book about quantum physics for kids! Featuring a girl! How could AR pass this up?

When you have kids who are avid readers, they run into different obstacles than the general public understands. Our children’s publishing industry is focused on “hi-lo” books—high interest, low readability. In other words, books that are very similar to the type of kids’ movies that Hollywood puts out. The producers of these books assume that:

  1. Kids don’t like to read
  2. Kids have to be enticed into reading by high concept stories
  3. Kids are terrified to come across a word they don’t understand
  4. Kids will refuse to pick up any book that’s heftier than their iPad

Problem is, there are tons of kids who don’t fit this model, but because they are “doing fine,” no one is paying them much attention.

In the past, I’ve written about two periods of childhood in which avid readers run into roadblocks (pre-K/K and tween) and also how hard it is for science-minded girls to see themselves in kids’ literature (here).

Our daughter, now that she’s doing 7th grade in school, has run into another avid reader roadblock: Accelerated Reader.

In concept, AR sounds great. Kids read books on their own, log into AR at school, take a quiz about the book*, and get credit for reading time. At the beginning of each year, teachers set AR goals for all their students. Not having much of an idea who these kids are**, they set a low goal for the semester and kids like my daughter blow through that goal in a couple of months.

You can guess what happens next: The teacher doesn’t say, wow, this child has mastered everything she needs to in the area of reading, so I’m just going to encourage her to keep reading things she loves and stop worrying about proving that she’s reading certain, approved books. Instead, the teacher says, oh, no, this child reached the goal so early, I’m going to have to set a much higher goal.

So kids like my daughter learn a lesson that perhaps the teacher didn’t mean to teach: If you enjoy something that school cares about, make sure to hide it and pretend you’re just like everyone else. If you don’t, you’ll be punished with more busywork that will keep you from doing the things you want to do.

Here’s why my daughter was sad this morning. She clearly wants to read Alice in Quantumland. But she has to meet this new, high AR goal her teacher set soon after winter break has ended.

And Alice in Quantumland is not listed in AR. That means she can’t take a quiz to prove she read it. That means if she reads it, in her words, “I’ll be reading it for no reason since I won’t get credit.”

Oh, no! Reading for no reason! This terrible impulse must be quashed!

I can never get over the irony of being someone who understands how our education system works while listening to politicians and concerned community members talking about education. They want kids to read (mine does), be inspired (mine is), and learn (can’t stop mine from doing that). Yet they push our system for more and more “accountability,” which ends up quashing any interest in reading, any inspiration the teachers might be able to uncover in their students, and any real, deep learning that can’t be proven on a standardized test.

My daughter’s at school only because she wants to be. She knows that when she complains about AR, it’s not my problem. She could be homeschooling right now like her brother is, determining her own curriculum, reading books that inspire and excite her whether or not AR thinks they’re worth reading.

But for some reason, she’s continuing on this social science experiment that she started last year. I still stand firmly behind my reasons for letting her go to school: If I believe in child-led learning, then I have to let her see this through.

But when I saw her lovingly and sadly flipping through her new book, it gave me pause. It’s the last day of school before winter break. I could just say, “Come on, let’s be homeschoolers today.” But she had her celebratory cupcakes for her Humanities class party, and she was ready to go.

“Well,” I suggested. “Perhaps you will have time during vacation to finish your AR goals and then get to this book.”

And then we went to school.

* They take the quiz to prove they actually read the book—I won’t start on my rant about how unnecessary this is if educators were given the time to really work with and get to know their students…

** Another homeschooler rant here: If teachers had fewer students, if there were more continuity in our public schools from year to year so teachers didn’t have to depend on assembly-line teaching to try to serve their students’ needs, if we didn’t think we had to have “accountability” for each and every smidgeon of learning our kids do…

Posted in Culture Critic, Education, Homeschooling.

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Sifting and sorting: summer beach magnetorheological fun

Yes, it’s not summer anymore, yet I just was sifting through my blog and found this post I never activated. So keep this in mind for the coming summer. Or if you’re like us, you’ll enjoy a winter beach as well!

When I was homeschooling my daughter, I often wrote about things that we’d do to satisfy her need for tactile stimulation and goal-oriented projects. She just loves getting her hands into something, and when she was small, that meant our house could be, ahem, rather chaotic!

Recently she and her father were talking about iron filings (why were they talking about iron filings? these are the sorts of questions it’s best not to ask!) and he suggested that she get some from the beach. It being summer, we were able to indulge this whim without worrying about getting homework done. (Ah, homeschooling a younger child, how I miss you!)

We made our way to the beach with two strong magnets and three ziploc bags. The bags are important: Of course, you need one to store the filings into. The other two are to cover the strong magnets, because the thing her father warned her about came true almost immediately: if you drop a strong magnet into sand, you end up with a strong magnet covered with iron filings! OK, that in itself is pretty interesting, because we spent a good while pondering the physics of how to remove iron filings from a strong magnet! But I recommend trying to keep the magnets in their bags, because even though we came up with lots of nifty ideas, our magnets are still, to this day, covered with iron filings.

Step 1: Sweep your magnet through the sand and pick up iron-rich sand.


Step 1 if you accidentally drop your strong magnet directly into the sand. (Oops!)

Step 2: Put your magnet and bag into another bag. Pull the magnet out and the sand will drop into the bottom of the second bag.

Step 1, using the bag around the magnet

Step 2, using the bag around the magnet

Step 3: Repeat until you have a bag of sandy iron filings.


Step 2, assuming you have forgotten about keeping your magnet in the bag and instead dropped it directly into the sand.

Step 4: Repeat the attract and drop sequence with another bag or container so that you can further refine your iron filings and filter out sand.

My husband then recommended that we follow these instructions to create a “magnetorheological fluid.” That was pretty interesting, as well, though not quite as satisfying as the sifting process.

Posted in Avant Parenting, Homeschooling, Santa Cruz.

Mushroom magic

No, today’s post will not be an argument in favor of legalizing magic mushrooms. Move on to the next blogger if that’s what you’re looking for.

The other day I was waiting for my daughter to get out of school. Next to her school is a playing field with a dirt track running around it, and I try to arrive a bit early so I can get a walk in before she’s out.

Recently, they put out new mulch in various garden areas around the track, and I noticed the wonderful spectacle that mulch-plus-rain often offers: a lovely crop of varied mushrooms everywhere. My family are great appreciators of mushrooms in the woods and on our table, so I was enjoying the variety and exuberant growth.

As I rounded the track, I came across something curious. In a grassy area, not a speck of mulch to be found, there was a perfect circle of mushrooms. It was an almost magical thing, to see this perfect circle sprouting from the grass.


Yes, mushroom fairy rings have a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation. But sometimes it’s just lovely to enjoy natural phenomena for the magic they bring into our lives. This fairy ring made me smile.

Just then, the bell rang and the first two kids out were boys, one of whom was carrying a long, cylindrical object. They walked up to the mushroom ring, took a second to voice a “whoa” of appreciation, and then proceeded to destroy the whole thing. The boy with the cylinder played golf, and the other boy grabbed mushroom after mushroom, ripped it from the grass, and flung it as far as he could.

Now, to be fair, as my husband pointed out to me it’s not just boys that do things like this. So I’m not going to make any gender generalizations here. But I am going to bemoan this aspect of humanity—or perhaps it’s the fault of many of the cultures humanity has created—to want to defeat the magic of nature.

So I will rewind the tape, which ends with the flinging boy hitting me in the leg with one of his particularly large victims, and rewrite this scene from the “whoas.”

“Whoa,” the boys said in unison.

They looked at each other in astonishment. How could such a weird thing have happened without any sizzle of magic or hand of a god?

One of the boys thought, I bet our science teacher would be able to explain this. But he didn’t say anything.

The other boy thought, I bet I could find out what this is on Wikipedia. But he didn’t say anything.

Instead, the boys’ eyes met, and they knew immediately the appropriate response to this situation. They dropped their backpacks outside the circle, stepped inside, and sat down back-to-back within the ring of mushrooms.

Soon other students drifted away from the school buildings, and many of them were attracted by the unusual spectacle of a circle of mushrooms embracing two of their classmates. Some of them, also, threw down their backpacks and quietly sat down within the circle. Soon the circle was full and other kids stood outside of it, watching.

Impatient parents craned their necks from the parking lot. What the heck was going on over there that was so interesting? The kids were probably just getting itchy for winter vacation. The parents looked back down at their smartphones.

The kids quietly rose from the circle, fetched their packs, and went off to find their rides.

That night, raccoons came and picked the tastiest mushrooms from the circle. Then a drenching rain melted the mushrooms back into the grass.

In the morning, kids walked over the soggy grass, rushing because they were late for school.


Posted in Avant Parenting, Culture Critic.

Mommy brain

Moms congregating in groups at parks, breastfeeding support groups, and cafes often find themselves trading stories about “Mommy brain.” You know, B.B. (before baby) you were a high-ranking partner at a law firm and now you can’t remember where you stashed your favorite nursing bra. B.B. you aced calculus and now you stare blankly at a restaurant receipt, trying to remember how to calculate a tip. B.B. you never missed an appointment, but now you’ve rescheduled your haircut twice because it’s not like you were actually doing anything important, but somehow you managed to forget the only hour you’ve had to yourself in the last three weeks…twice.

This is me performing when I was studying at Stanford. I have blogged before about my beloved lime green skirt!

This is me performing when I was studying at Stanford. I have blogged before about my beloved lime green skirt!

You know how most of the time changes like these can go unnoticed, but every once in a while a ghost of your former self comes out to haunt you? That happened to me the other day. I was going through all my various 3-ring binders that I keep music in. Rather than having any sort of logical system (an idea I’d love to bring about but never have), my music binders tend to represent me at various stages in my life.

So I pulled out the binder I used the last time I performed live in a singing/guitar duo. I have no trouble remembering that time: I was hugely pregnant the last time we performed. My singing partner at the time and I had discovered that by random chance, we’d been born in the same town, so we named our little band after the town. I truly meant to get back to performing after the birth, but at 7 months pregnant, I was swollen up so much that my hands had gone into full-blown carpal tunnel syndrome (which my physician assured me would go away after birth, ha ha ha). Somehow, that return to performing never happened, and now that baby I was pregnant with is fifteen years old.

How did that happen? Mommy brain…

Anyway, here I was opening this binder, which was a little snapshot of who I was then, more than fifteen years ago. I was charmed by our playlist, which included a couple of my favorite Disney songs (“Everybody wants to be a cat” and “Cruella deVille”).

But here’s where my realization about Mommy brain came in: Each sheet had the words printed out, and some notes about how we were performing, but no chords. I rifled through the binder, amazed. Did I really perform without the chords written out?

Yes, apparently I did.

I’m in the midst of getting my song-singing chops back, fifteen years on with two kids, carpal tunnel surgery, and the painful process of creating new guitar calluses behind me. The lime green skirt is long gone, along with any expectation that I will ever again fit into a miniskirt, or dare to think I look good in one.

But it’s hard to see that despite what research might say, Mommy brain in my case is real: I really did perform without chords when last I performed. And when I was twenty and singing out on that patio, I apparently had memorized the words as well.

The best wisdom I have read about aging is that it’s important to remember that along with what we lose (chord progressions, words, our favorite nursing bra), we gain (insight, perspective, depth of understanding, appreciation for clothing that stretches and hides).

But when these occasional reminders come about, I can’t help but be a little sad for my loss. I used to be able to perform without chord progressions in my book. I used to be able to perform…without a book at all. I was good at calculus. (If Mommy brain hasn’t ruined me completely, I seem to remember I got an A+.) I did manage to hold everything important in my life inside my physical brain, before Evernote, cellphones, and even Google.

Now there seems to be so much—two kids’ schedules, a whole family’s needs—that I can’t stuff it all in there.

Car keysI just hope that when I get back out there with my new singing partner (who, as far as I know, wasn’t born in the same town I was), people will forgive us. Here we are, two post-baby moms, hers out of the house and mine plummeting headlong toward that end, making music and loving it.

If nothing else, give us a little applause for getting up there.

In spite of Mommy brain, we managed to find our car keys.


Posted in Arts and Music, Avant Parenting.

On digital education

No matter which publications you read, you’ve probably come across a fair number of articles expounding the virtues of online and computer-based education, and probably just as many bemoaning the ineffectiveness of digital education. Since I started homeschooling, I’ve had the opportunity to work with kids both in real world classes and online, and it occurs to me that neither side is right.

The Arguments

Proponents of digital education make some very good points about what the medium offers:

  • The ability for anyone, anywhere to access high-quality education
  • The ability for students to be able to move at their own pace rather than being hampered by slower learners
  • The availability of esoteric learning to anyone who wants to access it

From the perspective of enrolling my own homeschooled children in online courses, I would add:

  • Freedom for unusual learners to take part in classrooms that require fewer real-world social skills
  • Ability for children to connect with non-local children who have similar interests

Digital education doubters also make good points:

  • The best, deepest educational experiences stem from social connections as well as access to information
  • There is no quality control online so much of what passes as education doesn’t meet the barest minimum standards
  • Automated digital learning often passes children to the next level when they haven’t achieved mastery of the previous level
  • Education can’t be quantified
Athena's logo

I have been enjoying teaching literature and etymology at Athena’s, an online school for gifted homeschoolers. I’d never be able to put together enough students in my town to carry a multi-age class in etymology, but online, I meet weekly with a pack of enthusiastic, word-crazy kids.

Digital education won’t save us, but…

I actually agree completely with the digital education doubters: Digital education is not the answer to all of our educational woes. We need well-educated, well-respected teachers who are paid well and given ample opportunity to continue their education throughout their careers. We need a variety of types of schools for different types of learners, and these schools need to be clean, well-stocked, happy places where everyone actually wants to be. Human beings are social animals, and we need education to reflect that part of our nature.

On the other hand, digital education is, in fact, filling needs that real-world education has not fulfilled, especially for children. First of all, our education system—not just public schools but also private—tends to focus on the broad middle of the spectrum. Educational institutions can’t serve every child’s needs; they are designed to fit some chunk of the spectrum. Private schools, at least, can admit this fact and cater to certain types of learners, or certain types of families. But we have charged our public schools with the seemingly unattainable goal of serving every child’s needs.

Digital education helps to make that goal a bit more attainable. Children who are advanced in a subject can take online classes to learn more advanced material than their physical world teachers are able to teach. They can also find communities of learners who are like them—each child is unusual in his or her own environment, but on the Internet, just one of a crowd.

Children who are struggling also benefit from digital education. Children who require more repetition in math, for example, can get that repetition in a math program geared toward their needs. Children who need more instruction in reading can practice with modern tools that help them progress more quickly.

Digital education also democratizes education. It used to be that your zip code pretty much determined your prospects. It is still the case that your zip code pretty much determines the test scores at your physical world school, but it doesn’t have to hold back a student who wants to access higher learning anymore. Digital education has made learning available to all, even the many who don’t yet know it exists.

Change can be uncomfortable

kid with computer

Kids anywhere can come together to learn subjects they choose from enthusiastic teachers.

Digital education does the same thing for learning as digital media has done for information. Digital media took the power from the large media power brokers and gave it to everyone. Your blog could end up being as influential as a city newspaper. Digital education has similarly spread education to the many. Where before you had to have the connections and the money to access education in esoteric subjects, now you can interact with others across the world and learn about subjects that used to be obscure.

None of this means that the digital education doubters are wrong. Digital education is not going to solve the fact that a high school in Oakland has no toilet paper, or that an elementary school in Mobile is staffed by teachers who don’t know its from it’s. I like to think of digital education as filling in gaps rather than replacing the structure. If our brick and mortar education system is the structure of the log cabin, digital education is the mud we use to make sure that a cold wind doesn’t come in through the cracks.

We’re in an exciting period of infancy in education, and no one promised that rebirth would be comfortable.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

Parenting in a striving culture

The challenge

I have been honored to have my blog featured for some years now in the Santa Cruz Parent newsletter. Parmalee always links to such interesting information and asks such insightful questions. This week, she posed this one:

I listened to an Australian mother recount her adventures in learning how parents in different cultures raise children. Especially interesting was her visit to a Fiji Island where an elderly grandmother was raising 9 assorted child relatives while the parents were off working and sending money home. She sat inside her one room house watching tv while the children played outside, settling their squabbles themselves, never asking or expecting an adult to intervene. At night they shared a couple of mattresses. I figure that’s at least 4 or 5 to a mattress. Now you wouldn’t find that approach in Santa Cruz where we tend to hover, guide and structure a little more. Is there a message in here?

This is one I just can’t let go, as it touches on a subject near and dear to my heart: the effects of modern culture on our health, happiness, and success.

I hear it from all sides: People want to adopt another culture’s food, religion, or child-rearing because their own seems so inadequate.

We’re strivers

Multitasking mom

The modern striver mom—I attempted to find out where this image comes from so I could credit it, but apparently every mommy blog in the universe has used it without crediting it! Thanks to the artist, in any case.

Striving for a better life is one of the fundamental reasons for humans’ success. In always trying to find something better, humans have done wonderful things. We have created lives in places like the U.S. that are devoid of any of the fight for survival that traditionally was part of the human experience, and still is in many places in this world.

But contemporary Americans have this urge to think that amidst our success we’ve missed out on some fundamental key to health and happiness. I think this is a result of our need to strive for more. If our culture tells us to keep going for more, better, deeper, faster, stronger… how do we know when we’ve gotten there?

Where we are

And let’s admit this: We’ve gotten somewhere. If you time-traveled Ponce de Leon and showed him our lives, with our big, strong bodies, ability to thrive without hard physical labor, and knowledge of how to cure disease, isn’t it possible he’d think that we have, in fact, found some version of the fountain of youth?

A fair amount of sociological research is being done lately by examining trends on Google, so I’m going to start there. When I type “famous Fijians,” here’s what I get:

famous Fijians

I truly do value singing, great food, pithy sayings, and art (though I admit I have nothing to say about rugby). However, I will say this: Fijians may be happy, well-fed, and artistic, but they aren’t known for raising kids who go off to advance human society in terms of science, technology, or philosophy.

Which cultures are doing this? Largely the ones that are currently so dissatisfied with how they’re raising our children. Hm… So we’re dissatisfied with our parenting culture, yet our parenting culture is what created the people who invented this keyboard I’m typing on and the Internet we’re communicating through. Those ill-parented children invented the medicine that has kept me alive, when in a traditional society I would certainly have died by now of disease or in childbirth.

This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with Fijian or any other more traditional culture, but it does mean that theirs is fundamentally different from ours. Our children eating their inadequate modern diet, speeding around in their fast-moving vehicles, and living their “meaningless” modern lives are the same ones who are:

  • curing cancer (which we wouldn’t worry so much about if we were dying at 25 in childbirth or at 50 of disease)
  • inventing agricultural technology (to feed the masses of humans we’re keeping alive with modern medicine)
  • inventing entertainment devices (which we now have time for due to other advances)

We live in a culture that promotes striving, and this has paid off. Striving cultures throughout human history have built an amazing body of knowledge and skill, from ancient scholars in Mali and Egypt to scientists, technologists, and academics in the modern developed world.

Why we’re dissatisfied

It’s hard to live in a striving culture. We have time to worry about things that someone trying to scare up her next meal can’t even begin to care about. I, for example, look in the mirror and worry about my wrinkles. I know this is silly—I know that in emotionally wiser societies, wrinkles are cherished as a sign that you are now ready to support the younger generation with your wisdom. But worry I do, because I live in a striving society and one of the things we’re striving for is beauty and continued youth.

But when I read about people wanting to pick and choose the positive things about traditional cultures and impose them on ours, I can’t help but think that they’re going about it all wrong.

What we want from those cultures is something that is sitting right in front of us, waiting for us to recognize it: We want our kids to be happy, grow up healthy with strong friendships and family bonds, and live meaningful lives. But we don’t have to deny the fundamental good aspects of our culture in order to achieve those goals.

From Fiji to California

Here’s what I take away from that Fijian grandmother: I am aware that helicopter parenting can be damaging to kids, and I try not to do it. But when I’m not paying direct attention to my kids, I’m not (usually) sitting in front of the TV with my feet up. My kids see me striving, they see me taking part in our Maker culture, they see me taking part in discussions with friends and family about what it means to be a citizen of our modern world and how to be a good parent within our context.

And when my kids aren’t hanging out outside (which is important!), they are also taking part in our striving culture, hopefully getting the best of it while learning to resist its negative influences.

Healthy parenting, in our culture, requires that we build on our successes, while at the same time try to improve how we’re parenting in order to do better.

It’s a tall order, but that’s life in a striving culture. If you’d rather your children grow up to be happy consumers, best you hope that some of the rest of us are raising our children to be strivers. Those are the people who are going to cure ebola, slow global warming, and yes, create new and better entertainment options for when we’re grandmas and we want to spend (some of) our time with our feet up!

Posted in Avant Parenting, Culture Critic, Santa Cruz.

Halloween sad-face

When raising children there are those milestones you look forward to, and then there are the ones that pass a bit more poignantly. When your children reach the teen years, it seems, you start getting more and more of those poignant ones!

This year marks the official end of our family trick-or-treating. Insert sad pumpkin face here.

Sad pumpkin

The saddest jack-o-lantern. We did a science experiment one year where we studied the decay of a carved and uncarved pumpkin.

For years, we’ve had a tradition that I have loved: We go out with the kids and neighbors, and trick-or-treat on our unlit, sidewalk-less little street where over half of the homeowners pointedly do not put on their outside lights.

Why do we trick-or-treat here rather than driving to the very fun neighborhood just up the hill? I’ll send you to a six-year-old blog post to answer that question in detail. The short answer is that Halloween on our little street makes me feel like we’re living in the close-knit, small-town neighborhood I grew up in. We’re not: On my old street, we knew everyone. Now, though we know many of our neighbors, we certainly know fewer than half by name. But on Halloween, all the modern barriers break down. By tradition, the adults start out with a wine glass in hand and get refills from houses we stop at with the kids. The kids get to visit many fewer houses than possible because of all the adult gabbing, but on the bright side, there are so few kids trick-or-treating that each house tries to off-load lots of candy into their bags.

So, back to the sad pumpkin-face. Our 15-year-old really is too old for trick-or-treating, and he already went to his Halloween party. He’s hoping, I’m sure, to score a little candy here and there, but if he wants candy he’ll just go out and buy candy that he actually likes. Our 11-year-old—now a middle schooler—has been invited to a party in a much more lively neighborhood on Halloween.

However, there are a few perks to the modern neighborhood where people don’t live by the old rules. One of our neighbors today sent a note to our neighborhood email list and made an offer: Not only will they be open for candy for the kids, not only will they have wine flowing for the parents… they will even welcome adults without kids for a spot of socializing.

I plan to take them up on their offer. It’ll be so sad to miss walking down our dark street at night. I have to admit, however, that I might stop off at a few houses just to say hi. And perhaps, to suggest that neighborhood block party we always talk about but never get around to.

Maybe, if I feel really sentimental, I’ll carve the pumpkin that my 15-year-old hasn’t gotten around to carving. There it sits on our steps, a natural pumpkin face surrounded by his sister’s carved ones. It’s a sign of the times.

Next thing I know, they’ll be in college and I’ll be wondering where the years went.



And for your viewing pleasure, my favorite spooky black cat photo. That’s Nisene sitting next to a dewy spider web.

Posted in Avant Parenting.

You’re not the boss of me!

There is one phrase that kids in my part of the world inevitably seem to say—usually sometime around 6 or 7:

“You’re not the boss of me!”

The first time one of my children said it to me, I was a bit taken aback. At that point, most of his verbal style had come from his parents, and we had certainly never said such a thing. In fact, we had never heard any adult say that phrase or anything in that actual grammatical construction.

BossThink about it: In English, we hardly ever use the possessive form “noun of me”—we use “my noun.” So the natural way of saying “you’re not the boss of me” in English would be, “you’re not my boss.”

If one of my children had said that to me, I wouldn’t have been startled at all. In fact, they may have heard me say such a thing to them!

But “you’re not the boss of me”—that exact set of words—seems to be ubiquitous amongst American children. At some point, each child says that to a parent, to the point that parents can make each other laugh by quoting it at each other. If a parent says, “You’re not the boss of me!” we know they are imitating a kid.

So this means that kids have their own grammatical construction that, I’m guessing, gets passed from kid to kid, never being used by an adult in their hearing. (Except, perhaps, when they overheard their parents mocking them, which we hope never happens because we hope that our children don’t actually know how funny we find them, right?)

Perhaps “you’re not the boss of me” is kid-specific speech: like knock-knock jokes and fart jokes, meaningful only during some specific developmental period.

OK, maybe not the fart jokes.

Posted in Avant Parenting.

The comfortable closets we live in

Sometimes advocating for something you believe in can mean stepping out of a very comfortable closet that you’ve spent much of your life in. In my case, I was so comfortable, I didn’t even notice that I’d locked myself in the closet till I had children. My particular closet is the one that we hide in when we’re afraid of pointing out our own differences from the norm. It’s a very, very comfortable closet, but usually a solitary one.

Since the sixties, however, understanding has been growing that people sometimes need to seek others who share some aspect of their life experiences in order to learn more about themselves.

Here I am in paragraph three, and I’m still enjoying the comfort of my closet, so I guess I should just out with it! Once I had children, I started to notice how parenting, education, and healthcare resources were all set up to satisfy the needs of the many, but there was a group of few whose needs were not being served well: that group of kids who have been given the unfortunate label of “gifted.”

My discomfort with the word, and with even pointing out differences in intellectual ability, is deeply ingrained, pounded into my psyche by years of cultural pressure. If a mom says they’re choosing a new school because their daughter is an avid volleyball player and the new school has a good coach, we think that’s completely reasonable. If a mom says they’re choosing a new school because the current one doesn’t offer advanced enough education, suddenly she’s a) bragging, b) being pushy, and c) probably deluded about her son’s intellectual ability in the first place.

That’s how it was when I was growing up in the 70’s midwest, and that’s pretty much how it is for kids across the US now. There are some positive changes. For one, I stuck my neck out and typed the dreaded word “gifted” into Google and found out that I share my closet with all sorts of parents I’d never noticed. They, too, are wondering if they can figure out a way to save their kids from the boredom and self-hatred that our emphasis on not pointing out differences in intellectual needs has led to. We parents have come up with a variety of solutions, from educating teachers, to fixing our local schools, to joining national organizations, to homeschooling. But the thing we have in common is that we have reluctantly come out of the closet in order to advocate for our kids.

Parenting is a balancing act between supporting our children and also letting them go to soar or fall as they need to.

Parenting is a balancing act between supporting our children and also letting them go to soar or fall as they need to.

Pretty much the only time I feel like writing on this subject is when someone asks me to; in this case, I’m joining other bloggers in Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop. Hoagies’ is one of the first stops that parents new to giftedness make on the Internet. Carolyn K, who runs the site, is one of the pioneers of online gifted advocacy. She’s one of those people who decided to throw open the closet door while the rest of us were just trying to get comfortable and not make waves.

Like all minorities, gifted kids need their advocates. Schools are not set up to fulfill the needs of unusual learners. Parenting manuals get it all wrong when it comes to parenting intense, unusual children. Doctors, therapists, and other professionals get no training in the needs of their gifted patients. Pretty much everyone assumes that if your child taught herself to read and is quick in math, you’ve got nothing to worry about. But of course, just like everyone else, gifted children have their own challenges that, while sometimes different from the norm, still deserve the attention and support of the adults around them.

We parents are drawn to trying to fulfill our own children’s needs, but everything we do to make their lives better helps advocate for the wider community. I am deeply indebted to Hoagies‘, SENG, my gifted homeschooling group, Great Potential Press, my state and national advocacy groups, and probably other organizations I am forgetting to name. All of us who have stepped tentatively out of our comfortable closet improve the lives of gifted children everywhere.

giftedadvocacyThis post is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted blog hop. Gifted advocacy takes place in many places. From schools to homeschool groups, from our houses of worship to the YMCA and JCC, from the grocery store to the family gatherings… we are Gifted Advocates everywhere, and at every age.

Posted in Avant Parenting, Psychology.

A grown-up Harry Potter for me and you

Some years ago my husband was reading a book he’d bought on the basis of a good review. He was sitting in his chair chuckling, and occasionally he would say, “You have to read this!” and then “I mean it, you’ve really got to read this!”

“OK, dear,” I said, and back to my own book.

Then I did. The book was The Magicians by Lev Grossman. After I finished it I was hanging out with my sister and she said something like, “Oh, my book club read the greatest book!” and I answered, “I just read the greatest book, too!” And it turned out to be one and the same.

Harry Potter for grownups! Put the kids to bed early and enjoy.

Harry Potter for grownups! Put the kids to bed early and enjoy.

The Magicians has now morphed into a trilogy, the final episode published last month, and it’s one that I think every parent who was jealous of their kids for having Harry Potter just has to read. Remember how reading Harry Potter with your kids (or in my case, listening to the wonderful audiobooks) made you wistful for how the Narnia series really didn’t cut it once you put them side-by-side? Harry Potter let kids be real kids. They did real stuff that was not in the least allegorical. They lived in a world that was tactile and dirty and complex.

All we got as kids was weak Christian allegory. (Apologies if you still love Narnia, but reading it as an adult killed all my affection for it!)

The disappointing thing about Harry Potter, from the adult point of view, is that because it’s a series for kids, it does have to stay within the kids’ world experiences. There are no great revelations, no deep learning that happens in that series. The kids have adventures and eventually they overcome the evil.

The end happily ever after et cetera.

The Magicians is Harry Potter for grown-ups. It opens when our “hero” (rather less heroic than Harry, even) stumbles his way into a college for magicians. He doesn’t even know that magic exists. He’s never done anything the least bit magical, yet they’ve been watching him and they want him. Why?

In Harry Potter that question gets answered, but Grossman’s books are for grown-ups. Questions don’t get answered; they just balloon and get overwhelming, then subside and let you get on with your life. Quentin, Grossman’s protagonist, stumbles through young adult life in an endearing and somewhat scary way. Quentin’s a thinker, and he lets you know why he makes the decisions he makes, but unlike in a children’s novel, it doesn’t all come together to make sense. It ends, but the ending is just the beginning of the rest of his life.

These are not books for kids, or even your teenagers. In fact, don’t let your teens read these books. They’re yours. I mean it. I think you have to have lived long enough to realize that you don’t really know what the hell you’re doing in life in order to appreciate these books.

I love this piece by Grossman on how he found himself as a writer. I think Grossman does a great job of summing up why his books are so great to read:

“Fantasy is sometimes dismissed as childish, or escapist, but I take what I am doing very, very seriously. For me fantasy isn’t about escaping from reality, it’s about re-encountering the challenges of the real world, but externalized and transformed. It’s an emotionally raw genre — it forces you to lay yourself open on the page. It doesn’t traffic in ironies and caveats. When you cast a spell you can’t be kidding, you have to mean it.”

It’s clear that Lev Grossman means it. Go read these books. Ignore your children for a while. Really. And don’t let them read over your shoulder, as my 11-year-old attempted to do last night. She could see I had a good read, and she was jealous.

Let them be jealous. Let them have Harry.

We have Quentin.

Posted in Avant Parenting, Culture Critic.

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