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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.

Homeschooling and educational standards

A mom on a homeschooling email list I take part in responded to a post of mine with a question. I thought it was a great question, and I wanted to share my answer. Her question:

I’m writing bc of your response to X the other day regarding wanting her kids to cover standards…

You said “the belief that kids have to “hit standards.” … is really completely untrue. If all you wanted was to make sure that your kids mastered K-6 standards, you could just wait until they were 12 and teach it all to them in a matter of months.”

I really would like to believe this, but I’m wondering where this idea comes from.

As with most homeschooling “wisdom,” I don’t have a source to cite about this. However, from what I’ve seen with my kids, kids I know, and kids I’ve heard of at conferences and through other parents, it does seem to be true. Aside

Two happy unschoolers we used to hang with.

Two happy unschoolers we used to hang with.

from unaddressed learning disabilities, an intelligent, healthy, pre-teen child seems fully capable of learning most of the skills taught in elementary school quite quickly. 

If you think about it, it makes sense:

Most of math taught in elementary school is stuff that kids who are living a rich lifestyle can derive for themselves when they’re ready. (In fact, this is how ancient mathematicians did it, right?)

My second child entered public school in 6th grade after very little math “instruction” (he did like to occasionally do math booklets but almost exclusively was interested in geometry). His teacher complimented me on “how well I taught him math”! Why? Well, their first homework was to learn how if you subtract a larger number from a smaller number, you get a negative number. This is something any kid who has been playing with math for fun can simply derive for herself (as my child did). Most of elementary math is only “hard” for kids because it’s being pushed on them when they’re not developmentally ready and without any fun attached. 

Then there’s literacy skills:

Assuming your child learned to read (almost all kids will learn if they live in a household where books are loved and shared, whether or not they are taught), almost everything that is “taught” to kids in elementary school is something they would do anyway once they’re ready.

Children who grow up in reading households usually become readers themselves.

Children who grow up in reading households usually become readers themselves.

For example, my child’s English teacher made her students go through every single book they read and find “inferences” in each chapter. This was a pointless exercise for kids like mine. Any child who has read lots of stories and been read to and had lots of discussions about stories can do this. But most elementary school kids, unfortunately, are only hearing stories in school. And they seldom have an in-depth discussion with their families about much of anything. So the people who devise curriculum think that kids need to be “taught” this. Yet most homeschooled kids would just figure it out.

So what use are standards to homeschoolers?

There are two advantages that standards offer to homeschoolers who are living rich learning lifestyles, I believe. One is that you can sometimes use them if you suspect that your child might have a learning disability. But the problem is, since they don’t take into account natural variations in development, people often use them to over-diagnose learning disabilities.

The other advantage of standards is the actual content—I’ve used them to remind myself about topics that we might want to interest our kids in. So I think it’s valuable to look at standards and remember that kids should learn about ancient civilizations, for example, or electricity basics. But I found, to tell you the truth, that we went so far beyond what most standards call for in our areas of interest, and in our areas of non-interest, the kids don’t really retain much that they’re taught in elementary school anyway.

But truth be told, I’m not a pure unschooler:

I’m not a proponent of unschooling in any dogmatic way, but I think that parents’ understandings of their kids’ learning and intelligence has been poisoned, frankly, by the emphasis on hitting standards earlier and earlier.

Every bit of research of eminent adults has shown that many of them were considered “stupid” as kids. If you create one timeline of learning and expect everyone to achieve every point on it at the same age, you’re going to set a lot of kids up for failure.

It’s the educator’s job to set students up for success:

Pure unschooling - never offering guidance to children - doesn't appeal to me, but child-led learning is what works for us.

Pure unschooling – never offering guidance to children – doesn’t appeal to me, but child-led learning is what works for us.

I’d rather set kids up for success, and raise them to believe that they can fill in any gaps that are there when they are ready to. I’m watching my 17-year-old doing this with great success right now. I’m not saying that I wasn’t really scared that we’d put out uneducated kids at the end of this (I’m at that scary point with my 13-year-old right now), but watching the 17-year-old blossom and go for his passions has been wonderful.

Had I focused too much on standards and not on letting him follow his passions and develop his strengths, I believe that he may have become a “safer” student, but certainly not a more passionate, wide-ranging, and well-educated one. He’s apply to college this fall. I hope that the admissions committees see his achievements as I do: the success of rejecting the safety of standards for the joy of learning and following one’s passions.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

Tagged with , .

11 steps to guiding difficult gifted kids

This is Part 7 of a guest series I wrote in 2012 for Great Potential Press, which published my book, From School to Homeschool. A change on their website made it inaccessible, so I’m republishing here in celebration of National Parenting Gifted Children Week. To read the complete series, click here to start with post #1, “The Role of Parents in Identifying Gifted Children.”

Parenting a gifted child presents unusual challenges. Parenting a gifted child with behavioral differences places new burdens on top of those challenges. Although no one has the one magic ticket to make your life easier, experienced parents of gifted children offer variations on the following advice to help you negotiate the process of raising your wonderful, difficult child.

1. Don’t depend on one theory of parenting.

It’s unusual for a well-loved parenting theory to work without alteration for kids with behavioral differences. Take the parts that work, get rid of the parts that don’t.

2. Keep records.

A parent’s point of view about her child’s behavior can vary widely over only a matter of months. Children tend to coast along for a while then go through rapid periods of change. Parents often find themselves saying, When is this EVER going to end? Then some months later they realize that whatever it was had ended and they hadn’t noticed.

3. Expect regression.

This is totally normal, even for neurotypical kids. It happens in every area of life: potty training, academic learning, sleep habits… Parents of unusual children should try not to be disconcerted by normal regression.

4. Get the help of a good occupational therapist.

The best ones will have some background in issues of giftedness, though the very best will be eager to learn whether or not they have the background. A good occupational therapist will be interested in the whole child.

5. Find a general Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) whose approach works well with your family.

Your LMFT will be able to help you work through ideas and also give you a sense of how unusual your child’s behavior really is. Once parents become sensitized to having an unusual child, they tend to lose perspective. In other words, “usual” kids aren’t perfect, either.

6. Don’t jump on every new theory you see, but then again, don’t discount everything as out of the question.

There is so much more information available to us now than to parents in previous generations. In one way, this is blessing. Parents today have access to advice from a wide variety of sources. But on the other hand, parents can go crazy trying to follow every piece of advice. Your child, and your family, will stay more sane if you take each piece of advice under consideration, but don’t jump on every train that passes.

7. Some simple nutritional changes can make a big difference.

Fish pillsThere are a few dietary changes that every parent of a difficult child should try. These changes have been shown to work well with a large number of gifted children, and they are not difficult ones to implement:

– Supplement with Omega-3 oils. They influence brain function, and parents often see an immediate difference in their kids, especially in their ability to maintain stable moods.

– Try to up the protein intake and lower the simple carbohydrate intake. Simple carbs are really bad for kids whose brains are on overdrive. Protein, especially early in the day, gives them something to work on.

– Try to avoid artificial colors and preservatives, especially sodium benzoate. These have been shown to exacerbate problems with kids who tend toward hyperactive behavior.

– Have “hyperactive” children’s ferritin levels checked. Recent studies are showing that kids who have normal general iron levels but very low ferritin (stored iron) levels show ADHD-like behaviors. (See ‘Relationship of Ferritin to Symptom Ratings Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder’, Oner, 2007) Iron supplementation is easy and may show large benefits.

8. Be willing to give your child the support he needs to succeed.

Some parents fall into the trip of letting their children fail because they assume that kids “should” be able to handle what other kids handle. But a gifted child who fails repeatedly because of inadequate support will never learn the joy of succeeding. When possible, set up enough “successful” activities to balance the challenging activities. If the child is in school, work with the teacher to provide positive feedback on progress, no matter how small.

9. When possible, make reasonable accommodations for your child’s differences.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASometimes parents expect gifted kids to be more resilient than neurotypical kids. But simple accommodations for common problems can help gifted children thrive. For example, many twice-exceptional children have difficulty with handwriting. This translates into the child being unable to express herself in writing. In this case, a reasonable accommodation would be for the child to learn keyboarding or dictate homework to a parent. Handwriting itself can be worked on separately, when it is not interfering with the creative process.

10. Be willing to call him a child with special needs.

This is a big step for many parents of twice-exceptional children to take. Your child does have special needs, even though he also has special talents. And all children deserve to have their needs met so that they can reach their potential.

11. Put on your mask first

Finally, don’t forget that the parents of gifted children need help, too. Find a support group, in person or online. Getting input from other parents who have similar challenges will help you be the best parent you can be.

Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

Tagged with , .

College Prep Unschooling

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.

When people find out that I homeschool my teenager, their questions tend to fall into predictable groups. What about socialization? and Aren’t you afraid of the gaps in learning? are two of the major ones. These are relatively easy questions to answer: Since when is sitting in a classroom with 32 kids the same age socially appropriate? And as for those gaps, in our house we welcome them and fall into them deliciously when we feel ready!

One of the things my son has been able to apply himself to is his debate club, which travels to conventions.

One of the things my son has been able to apply himself to is his debate club, which travels to conventions. So much for unsocialized homeschoolers!

One question, however, comes from parents of academically focused students and deserves deeper consideration. How can unschoolers who are looking forward to applying to competitive universities adequately prepare themselves? And even more importantly for us parents, how can we make sure that we’re not actually placing a huge handicap on our kids when we decide to homeschool them through high school?

Guiding a student who hopes to study Math at MIT, Political Science at Harvard, or attend Stanford Medical School is a process that requires thinking about how others will view our students’ achievements from the outside—anathema to most homeschoolers who focus on their children’s well-being first and foremost. Although this is still child-led learning—it is our students, after all, who are setting the goal of getting into these universities—it leads to different sorts of decision-making.

Kevin Karplus, whose son applied to top computer science and engineering programs this year, says that his son’s goals required him to apply much more effort into achieving outside his areas of interest.

“Early on, we decided to make sure that he met the admissions criteria for the University of California, which meant taking a few courses that he had little interest in, mainly in the humanities,” Karplus explains.

In the case of Jon Ziegler’s math-focused son, the decision-making process led in a different direction.

“My son has no interest in getting a formal education outside of his passionate interest in math,” Ziegler explains. “That pretty much eliminated all US colleges except for those with flexible curricula like Brown. However, those schools did not have outstanding math departments.”

Ziegler’s son ended up focusing on universities outside of the U.S. which had no general education requirements for application. He is in the process of applying to Cambridge University, where he will be allowed to focus on math exclusively if he chooses to go.

Christine, a mom who has three homeschooling teens, says that to a certain extent it’s possible to make a passionate high schooler’s transcript look more or less ‘conventional’ for the purpose of college admissions committees.

“While they did pursue their own passions, I did make sure that their transcripts reflected what the colleges would look for,” Christine explains. “This was easier than I thought.  At first, their high school years looked lopsided, but by the time they finished, I was able to easily fill in the matrix of what kids are expected to cover in high school.”

Christine elaborates on the process of translating unschooling to a college application by detailing how she found a way to fulfill the University of California’s English requirements. “For the University of California application, two quarters of CC English validated three years of unschooled English activities for one kid. Since we didn’t follow formal English curriculums, I pulled high school English syllabuses from UC approved classes and compared them to the work done each year. At the end of each year, he had read and discussed several good literature books based on his interests that year, check. Researched, attended, and discussed several Shakespeare plays, check. Prepared and given presentations for various technical projects, check. Wrote various summaries, resumes, emails, software documentation, etc., check.”

“Looking back,” Christine admits, “I was always amazed at what was accomplished in comparison to the expectations of the UC approved class.”

This is not to say that homeschooling high school doesn’t have its challenges. One thing I like to say to people about my role unschooling a high schooler who hopes to apply to competitive colleges in computer science is that my role is much less teacher than scheduler, coach, and chauffeur. Christine agrees.

“My kids have had to travel to and from classes, jobs, and activities and juggle a variety of schedules,” she says. “At the high school level, I became more of a facilitator, guiding the process. For some subject areas, I knew they needed more than I could offer and we found outside teachers and mentors. For other areas, we worked through them together, giving each student the time and flexibility to master the material in ways that worked for them. I love this aspect of homeschooling.”

Some of the advantages of unschooling high school can actually be liabilities at the same time. The flexibility, for example, allows our students to delve much more deeply into their areas of passion. It also allows the student—and the parent—to be less mindful of deadlines and less aware of how much can actually be achieved in one day.

“Time management can be tough, as there is more to do than there is time for, and parental deadlines don’t carry the same weight as external ones,” recalls Kevin Karplus.

Karplus also points out that the flexibility isn’t terribly helpful when our students need something we simply can’t provide.

“Finding courses and teachers for things we couldn’t teach ourselves was often difficult,” Karplus admits. “The community college is a great resource, if you can get into the classes.”

Sometimes the problem is availability; for example, community college students who are still officially ‘in high school’ are usually given lower priority for class enrollment than matriculated students. Karplus, who had no trouble working with his son in his own areas of expertise, math and computer science, ended up having to do chemistry labs at home because the community college chemistry class had a wait list.

Other issues that come up can simply be a matter of convenience: For example, in-person classes not offered close enough to home, or online classes offered at inconvenient times. And, of course, there is the ever-present problem of self-motivation—even if the student has committed herself to applying to a competitive college, she might not be willing to put in the effort she needs to in her weaker areas. When no one is forcing you to go to English class in third period—much less threatening to fail you if you don’t get your next paper in on time—it can sometimes be hard to keep up the necessary pace.

But all those drawbacks are clearly outweighed by the benefits of unschooling high school for academically motivated students. The most important issue, for both students and the competitive colleges they are applying to, is that unschooling high school allows students who are advanced in one or more academic subjects the opportunity to distinguish themselves from the pack.

“I was just rereading my son’s college application essays and the internships and projects related to computer science and electronics he was able to pursue were extensive,” recalls Christine. “For my daughter, she hasn’t had to decide between challenging classes, sports, and volunteer work like many of her schooled friends. She was able to organize her own schedule and work efficiently so that she was able to volunteer over 3000 hours during middle and high school for a local animal shelter. Both were able to progress at their own pace, accelerating in some areas and having time to mature in others.”

Freed from the confines of a high school’s offerings, unschooling teens can opt to move into more challenging classes much earlier.

“As a homeschooled student you have the flexibility to take whatever classes you can at local colleges,” says Jon Ziegler. “This can mean exposure to much more advanced material than is usually possible in high school. In his case he’s been informally sitting in on graduate math classes for several years now.”

Kevin Karplus points out that students can also shine in areas apart from their academic pursuits.

“This year he has been doing a lot of acting,” Kevin explains. “This weekend will be his fourth in a row for being on-stage in four different productions. [This] would have been impossible [while] doing a ‘normal’ high-school load.”

In the case of my own student, the thing we treasure most is the time he has to pursue his own projects. For a few years now he has been able to convert personal programming explorations into successful science fair projects, write apps that have brought in actual cash, and join a high-tech start-up with some homeschooling friends. These are all things that we hope will distinguish his application and provide a counterweight to the fact that he simply spends less time on the classes and activities that I remember kids referring to as ‘college suck’—things that would look good on an application.

“In many ways, homeschooling high school has been easier than going to school,” Christine says. “My kids have been able to take classes outside of the traditional pacing. They have been able to interact with a greater variety of teachers and students, and more with the larger community. They have gotten more than just classroom learning through their extensive work and volunteer time and have interacted with adult mentors and had real world experience to help jump career exploration. This is all in addition to more personal time and less stress than we see from schooled kids who are pursuing similar college goals.”

It is both comforting and a bit worrisome that these students will enter university looking quantifiably different than their schooled peers. As parents, we hope that colleges will look at these unusual, lopsided applications and see dedication and creativity rather than worrying about why our children didn’t do the required semester of ‘health.’

“He already has the equivalent of the first two years of a computer engineering degree program,” Kevin Karplus says, “and has done projects comparable in scope and complexity to college senior design projects.”

Christine’s list of the things her children were able to do while unschooling reads like an advertisement for what we hope the admissions committees will notice in our students’ applications.

“Many real world experiences pursuing their passions—internships, jobs, projects for Maker Faire, commercial products, extensive volunteer and leadership opportunities…”

And she is one mom who can point to success when she meets up with naysayers.

“My daughter is heading to Berkeley as a Regent’s Scholar, joining her brother who also is.  Who knows what their younger brother will do.  Each one has such unique needs and paths.”

And that, in a nutshell, is why we unschool.


Unschooling to College Resources

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

Embarrassing moments on the path to reading

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.

There is an embarrassing piece of videotape somewhere in my collection of tapes that may never be watched again. I had set up the video recorder on a tripod, turned it on, and sat down on the floor with my son, who was just about to enter kindergarten. I got out my homemade flashcards and spread them on the carpet in front of us.


Sometimes I wonder whether my pushing phonics actually delayed my son’s reading.

“Cat,” I said, then replaced a letter. “Bat.”

My son was patient. The baby in my arms was less patient.

“Sat,” I said excitedly. “Mat. Look! The cat and the bat sat on the mat!”

My son was patient.

Off to kindergarten he went. We had graduated from the alphabet to sight words. Every time he saw the word “the” he laboriously said, “tuh-HUH!”

“No, buddy, it’s the,” I said, probably less and less patiently.

Then I gave up. His kindergarten was Waldorf-style, with very little reading and writing and a lot of playing in the woods. I knew that was what we wanted, for him to have a rich, fun childhood, but how could a son of mine not be reading already? I didn’t even remember learning to read, it happened so young.

The next year, he got into an experiential learning charter school. I watched as the teacher read stories out loud, introduced a huge project about rainforests, and taught math with manipulatives. My son was having fun, but how was he going to learn to read?

And then, one day he read. He read a chapter book, then another, and then Harry Potter.

After school one day I was chatting with the teacher and I said, “I’m amazed at how much my son has progressed in reading.”

“Oh, reading,” his teacher answered. “We haven’t gotten to that yet.”

But there was a twinkle in her eye.

Both of my children ended up being that sort of child who would mysteriously learn to read, seemingly overnight. I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that I’d been that sort of child. But I believed what school and our larger culture had taught me, that kids need to be “taught” and that the “right” way to learn was through phonics.

I believe that my attempt to introduce my son to phonics actually slowed down his reading, because it taught him that he was reading “the wrong way.” He and his sister both became whole word sight readers, tackling chapter books long before they could sound out a page of The Cat in the Hat.

I see homeschoolers online worrying about which reading program is the right one to use, and I always want to give them advice I myself wouldn’t have listened to: Wait. Watch your child. How does he interact with books? Does she “pretend” to read? Is he the kind of child who learns one bit on top of the next, sequentially, or the kind who seems to learn by osmosis?

Some children will need to learn to read with phonics, but many others will find phonics so difficult (and uninteresting) that it may actually put them off reading. After my experience with my son, I didn’t even try to teach my daughter to read—and she ended up reading much earlier.

A common worry about children learning to read whole words before phonics is that “they won’t know how to sound out new words.” That was true of both of my kids, at first. But then, just as in any other area of learning, they found that they were being held back by something and they decided to fix it. Both of them showed an interest in how words are pronounced well after they were reading long chapter books, and both of them ended up learning to sound out unfamiliar words adequately.

My boy who didn’t learn to read on my schedule is now excelling in community college classes at the age of fifteen. For the vast majority of kids, reading is not something worth worrying about. They will do it, and they will do it well, whether they learn at three or at eight. If there are no other warning signs, a child who isn’t reading yet is probably simply not ready.

If I could rewind that videotape and get another chance, I’d throw out the phonics and go back to what we’d been doing all along: Reading out loud together, talking about words, and pointing out interesting and funny aspects of the English language. My son knew from the beginning how important language and reading was in our family, and I didn’t have to do anything more in order to make him into a lifelong reader.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

Calm in the face of chaos, otherwise known as modern parenting

I just got back from a refreshing and fun homeschooling conference. Homeschooling conferences are their own sort of thing: part conference, part costume party, part mass therapy session. This one was no exception.

During the Q&A part of a talk I gave, one of the moms in the audience told me something like “I feel so reassured by how calm you are.”

I was a bit taken aback.

People have said this about me before, and all I can think is that I must be a really great accidental actress. It’s not like I try to put on a persona or try to broadcast something that’s not true, but calm?


My sister gave me a weird, tingly facial mask for my birthday. Calm. I am calm. As long as I can get those crawling bugs washed off my face Right Now, I am calm!

My sister gave me a weird, tingly facial mask for my birthday. Calm. I am calm. As long as I can get those crawling bugs washed off my face Right Now, I am calm!

Like all parents today, I feel like there is way too much coming at me, way too fast. Just a few facts of modern parenting will suffice:

  • We grew up in a world that seemed like it was going to last forever (or at least “billions and billions of years,” said in a Carl Sagan voice). Our kids are living with global warming and homegrown terrorism.
  • We grew up with toys that seemed wonderful and sometimes magical, but we knew how they worked. Our kids play with magic of a very different sort every time they turn on a screen.
  • We grew up in a world where you had a menu to choose from—the TV Guide and the limits of what your town (and the Sears catalogue) had to sell you. Our kids can get everything, nearly everything they can imagine. Instantly, or at least with two-day free shipping.

Our kids don’t just have their own slang for the world we know; they have their own world which didn’t exist when we were kids. The rate of change is fantastic. The rate at which we are acquiring knowledge about ourselves and the natural world seems boundless.

My parents had Dr. Spock to turn to for advice. We’ve got Drs. Galore—not just MDs but PhDs, LMFTs, PsyDs, and PhGs (Philosophers of Google, that is). Everyone is telling us that whatever we’re doing is wrong, and they’ve got all the answers.

Our kids are being diagnosed with disorders that didn’t exist when we were kids. We just used to have weird kids. Now we’ve got Asperger’s replaced with Autistic, Sensory Processing Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Bipolar Disorder…

We’ve got more disorders than we’ve got orders.

We’ve got public schools, private schools, charter schools, magnet schools, schools of choice, and homeschooling.

Heck, when I was a kid, you just went to school.

And if you’re homeschooling, you’ve got Christian homeschooling, secular homeschooling, eclectic homeschooling, classical homeschooling, unit studies homeschooling, not to mention outschooling and hybrid schooling.

Calm? Am I calm yet?

We parents have too much choice. We have too much input. We have too many people telling us to do too many things. We are both supposed to sign our kids up for Kumon and let them play in the mud. We are both supposed to inspire our kids and teach them to toe the line. We are both supposed to give them strong self-esteem and not praise them too much.

It’s a lot. It’s a very large lot in which we are playing at parenting, never sure we are doing the right thing.

I keep coming back to the word “calm.” If I appear calm, it’s not a charade. It’s not me trying to reassure you that it will be OK.

Calm is just me in the midst of the chaos we call modern life. I know that there’s very little I can do outside of that little space I operate within, so I just do what I can. If I can help one other parent feel self-assured enough to be a slightly better parent, I guess I’ve done my job in the world. If I send my kids out into the chaos with a few tools to use for their survival, even better.

I am calm, because what’s the point of adding to the chaos? We have no idea where this world is going, so we might as well enjoy what we have around us and try to spread a little bit of goodness out from our tiny space.

Calm. I am calm.

Posted in Culture, Homeschooling, Parenting.

The Value of Competition

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.

When I first became a homeschooler, I was surprised by the number of parents I met who were against allowing children to compete in any way. Activities in our public homeschool program were designed as “everyone wins” events. We hardly saw any homeschoolers at our county science fair, despite the fact that it was very welcoming to our kids. Parents were always on the lookout for cooperative games so that their children wouldn’t have to compete with each other.

Other homeschooling families I know also love to enter the science fair.

Other homeschooling families I know also love to enter the science fair.

The rare competitive homeschooler seems to be the exception: often they are homeschoolers specifically because their achievements leave little time for school. A high-level competitive gymnast seems more common amongst homeschoolers than a child who just likes the challenge of competition at any level.

In our family, however, we have an instinctive enthusiasm for competitions. It isn’t that our kids are generally high-achievers; in fact, they don’t necessarily place in competitions they enter. But we all feel the excitement and fulfillment of identifying a target, working toward it, and seeing our work alongside others who share our interests.

Science mania!

The science fair is a good example of a competitive event my children love. It is a huge payoff for project-based learning. Whereas other projects might gather dust on a shelf or become presents for Grandma, the science fair moves from independent exploration, to documenting the work, to sharing with fellow young scientists, and on to speaking with (and hopefully receiving awards from) judges.

My kids enter almost every year; they often win awards, but not always. The big payoff for them, however, is the experience as a whole. As an unschooler, I’ve become a sort of pied piper for the science fair. The first year my child entered, she was the only student in our public homeschool program who was interested. Over the years, I gushed enough about it that we’ve seen a bigger participation level, but nowhere near what I would expect for a well-managed, free, and inspiring educational event.

Shunning competition

So what’s up with avoiding competition? It turns out it’s not just homeschoolers. In “Losing is Good for You,” Ashley Merryman (New York Times) explores the phenomenon of parents shunning competition. She cites sports leagues in which all the children receive trophies, regardless of participation or performance.

“By age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by all the trophies,” Merryman writes. “They are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles. Those who are outperformed know it and give up, while those who do well feel cheated when they aren’t recognized for their accomplishments. They, too, may give up.”

When adults deny obvious differences between children, they send a confusing message. On the one hand, it’s a message of conformance: Don’t try to be different because even if we know you are, we’re going to pretend you’re not. On the other hand, it’s a message about the futility of working hard: Don’t try to improve because Johnny who didn’t even bother to come to practice is going to get the same reward as you.

Starting with the self-esteem movement in the late 1970’s, Americans altered how praise—both verbal and token-based—is given out. We wanted kids to feel good about themselves, so we started to say “good job” when our parents might have said “how could you miss such an easy pitch?” We wanted to celebrate kids who had been traditionally at the bottom, so we phased out games that would point out physical differences, competitions that would point out intellectual differences, and pretty much any situation in which a child might get the message, “you’re a loser.”

Growth mindset

The work of psychologist Carol Dweck has made waves across education in the United States, but when it came out, lots of parents and teachers looked at it and felt like they ought to say, “Well, duh!” It turns out that you can empirically prove that all this mindless cheerleading is bad for kids’ self-esteem. In a very simply designed experiment, Dweck asked kids to solve math puzzles. To half of the kids, the researchers said, “You are so smart!” To the other half, they said, “You worked so hard on that!”

Not surprisingly, the “so smart” kids suddenly had something to protect. They were so smart, and they’d better not let on when they had trouble with something. The “so smart” kids went on to perform miserably on a slightly harder task, whereas the “hard working” kids were pumped up by the researchers’ enthusiasm for their hard work, and they worked even harder and achieved more.

It’s true: in competitions, a few kids win and lots of kids lose. The thing is, in well-run competitions any kid who has a solid foundation of self-respect is not going to be fooled. When my kids and I look at the winners in a competition, we discuss whether we think the judging was fair. More often than not, my kids admit that the winners simply put in more work, had a more original idea, and did a better job of explaining what they did.

Competing for satisfaction

We love Santa Cruz Soccer, which emphasizes cooperation in competition.

We love Santa Cruz Soccer, which emphasizes cooperation in competition.

Recently I read an article about cultivating intrinsic motivation that was making the rounds amongst teachers. I noticed that the author pointed out the value of fair competition.

“Intrinsic motivation can be increased in situations where students gain satisfaction from helping their peers and also in cases where they are able to compare their own performance favorably to that of others,” writes teacher Saga Briggs.

She says “favorably,” but I would broaden that: I think that my kids gain satisfaction just from seeing where they lie in the continuum of human achievement. My daughter still plays soccer, even though she’s never been MVP. She celebrates the achievements of the great hitters on her softball team, pointing out how much they practice. My son sometimes declines to enter a competition that he judges himself unprepared for. It’s not that he has poor self-esteem—it’s that showing his work alongside the work of others who share his passions has given him a good perspective. He knows how hard he’s going to have to work to compete, and when he honestly isn’t willing to do the work, he would rather sit on the sidelines and cheer people who were.

Of course, a child who doesn’t enjoy competition shouldn’t be pushed into it. But by the same token, denying children the right to stand up and proudly declare their achievements does not bolster their self-esteem. Our kids are just as smart as we are….if not smarter. They know when people are putting them on, so if we continue the charade that kids’ achievements are all the same, we’re not doing them any favors. Yes, it’s great to celebrate all children’s abilities, but avoiding competition puts our children into a manufactured world where hard work is not acknowledged and their achievements are just another thing to gather dust up on a high shelf.


Losing is Good for You” by Ashley Merryman

25 Ways to Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation” by Saga Briggs

Posted in Culture, Homeschooling, Parenting.

Goal-setting full circle

In homeschooling and writing, things have a way of intertwining themselves without any sort of prior intent. Here are two topics that I’ve written about before:

Topic #1: learning about goal-setting is of particular importance to teenage homeschoolers. [Read more here.]

Topic #2: Homeschooling changes the adults who do it as much as the kids. [Here, here, here… heck, just read all my posts about homeschooling and you’ll see it’s a theme!]

This summer: The melding of two of my favorite topics.

I decided [why, oh why do I decide these things?] that first of all, I was going to write a book on goal-setting explicitly for homeschooling teens.

Secondly, I decided that I would offer an online class in the fall based on the book. [Read about it here.]


So, what did I inadvertently do? I set myself a goal, and then forced myself to be accountable for it. Paying students are already listed in my classroom, expecting to get their copy of my “book” in October.

I actually do know why I do these things to myself: When I was young, I thought that people “just did” things and how their work got out into the world was a mysterious process that hopefully I’d be swept into at some point.

I am spending more time on music, less time on trying to help every wayward organization function more efficiently.

I am spending more time on music, less time on trying to help every wayward organization function more efficiently.

In other words, I had never noticed that people who get things done actually set goals, figure out the steps to get there, and make themselves accountable in some way for reaching those steps and, hopefully, the final goal. This is not something I’d ever done, not as a child, a teen, a young adult, or even a mother of small children. I apparently thought that whatever life threw at me was what I would get.

But homeschooling (and parenting in general) has a way of getting you to look at yourself and notice things you hadn’t bothered to think about before.

Why didn’t I set goals? Why didn’t I make myself accountable for them? What was stopping me?

I’m not going to psychoanalyze myself (fear of failure? low self-esteem? the alignment of the planets?), but I have noticed a change since I’ve been forced to look more carefully at how I’m raising my children. I’ve started to look at the things I’m doing with a little more of a critical eye. It was a huge step for me just to go through a series of simple questions:

  • Is this activity fulfilling for me?
  • Is it taking up time that I should be using for something else?
  • Is it leading me in any particular direction, or am I just spinning my wheels?
  • Do I have any particular goal here?

Thinking like this got me to making a few changes in my life. I self-published my chapter book, Hanna, Homeschooler, knowing that it wasn’t really suited to a mainstream publisher, anyway. I am spending more time on music and less on trying (futilely) to help every organization I come into contact with work more efficiently.

Full circle

Writing this book on goal-setting is sending me full circle back to what I think is most important about goal-setting: being self-reflective, focusing our attention on what matters, and realizing that “success” is all about feeling like we’ve done our best, and not at all about being declared “successful” by someone else.

I still spend plenty of time on non-goal-oriented activities (never discount the value of a glass of wine with family or friends in helping you reach your goals!), but I feel more focused, less like I’m putting out fires and more like I’m setting fires for myself!

Posted in Homeschooling, Parenting, Psychology, Writing.