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On brain understanding and mental health

I recently had a conversation with two people, one adult and one teen, about intelligence. I pointed out that modern research is showing that to a certain extent “intelligence” (however we define it) is determined by our genes. Just like our height, the color of our hair, and other clearly physical characteristics, we’re given a physical brain at birth that is all we have to work with for the rest of our life. Of course, raise a child with “tall genes” in poverty with an extremely restricted diet, and he’s unlikely to achieve his full height. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have “tall genes” that his children, raised with a healthy diet, will be able to express.

When I pointed out this fact about intelligence, the adult responded that talking about intelligence, even in this way, sounds like bragging.

What is intelligence?

brain scan

Modern science shows us that brains are different, and we need to stop pretending that they aren’t if we want all kids to be able to reach their potential and live fulfilling adult lives.

It’s true: as a culture, we are very uncomfortable talking about intelligence as an attribute. First of all, we can’t seem to come to a popular definition of intelligence. What the average person might view as intelligence is not necessarily what shows up on an IQ test. But even when we get past that, we react very differently to a mom talking about her child’s sports prowess and a mom talking about her child’s academic achievements.

So why talk about intelligence at all? If Gardner’s theory is true, don’t we all have multiple intelligences, and isn’t this a good thing? Although brain research hasn’t actually given any support to Gardner, I do like his approach in the sense of reminding everyone who works with children that all sorts of skills and interests are valuable in this world.

What I think is interesting and important about talking about intelligence, though, is that by talking about it we can promote self-understanding, which in general leads to happier people who find fulfilling work and meaning in their lives.

Strengths and deficits

I find it sad that we persist as a culture in denying that people’s brains are different and that this is meaningful. Imagine that we as a culture denied that height had anything to do with being a good basketball player. No one admitted it, and every single child was expected to be able to excel at basketball if he or she really wanted to. The short kids would pretty quickly get the message that they simply weren’t trying hard enough, which would lead to the obvious conclusion that there was something wrong with their general ability to achieve.

Just as damaging would be a culture in which every tall person is expected to be phenomenal at basketball. (My very tall brother-in-law tells me that this is actually pretty true of our culture!) What if a tall person simply hated basketball or simply wasn’t good at it, no matter how hard he or she worked? These tall kids would receive an equally damaging message that they have some problem with their general ability to achieve.

But I don’t like math!

When I was a child I took some sort of aptitude test and received the results at school. I remember looking at that piece of paper that said that I should look forward to a future as a mathematician. Math? Sure, I was good enough at math, but I had no interest in it. I wanted to be a writer. It’s not that my verbal skills were particularly bad, but they certainly didn’t test high enough that I had a “should be a writer” note on my test results. Now, let’s not even get into the question of why students in my school received this piece of paper to take home, rather than having it sent to the parents! But past that, if an adult had explained the results to me our conversation might have led me down a very different path.

“These results show that you have a very high aptitude in math. That means that math probably comes easier to you than average. The test shows that you have pretty average verbal skills, and I want to make sure you understand that it’s fine to be average. You’re doing well. This test doesn’t tell you what you enjoy, just how easy or hard certain tasks will be compared to people in general. Many people end up pursuing careers in things they enjoy but have to work hard at it.”

Instead, I remember looking at dismay at the piece of paper, wondering what am I going to do? I don’t want to be a mathematician! I want to be a writer. And that was it, the end of any education I got into how my brain works.

Mental health from self-understanding

Though I can’t say I would have made any different choices in my life, I am certain that my feeling of well-being would have been enhanced by understanding myself as a person, which starts with understanding oneself as a brain.

This is how I’d like to see us use our growing understanding of how the brain works in education and parenting:

  1. Kids should learn that every person is born with a physical brain that may have strengths and deficits
  2. Kids should learn that how we use our brain affects how it develops over our lifetimes
  3. Kids should learn that far from limiting your options in life, understanding your brain can lead you to greater growth and achievements

With those little pieces of knowledge, we could raise children to withstand all the uncertainty, self-doubt, jealousy, and unnecessary comparisons that kids struggle with every day. Few short kids feel bad that they aren’t star basketball players—they would be unable to proceed with life if they let a simple fact of their biology stop them. They figure out that it’s a goal they can’t achieve, and they find something else.

Yet when it comes to other possible careers, so many kids are uncertain whether they can attain goals that they secretly have.

So many kids suffer from self-doubt as they try to achieve something they don’t seem to have a natural ability for.

So many kids suffer from the jealousy they feel—and the jealousy that others feel toward them—because our culture pits kids against each other rather than celebrating the hard work and achievements of each individual.

It’s a lot to work against. My own children, who have grown up with a homeschooling mom who has tried to raise them with a “growth mindset,” say things about themselves that stem from culturally instilled ideas about their abilities and deficits. It’s frustrating to hear my kids limit themselves like this.

This is a task that needs to be championed by more than just a few parents, a few teachers, and a few psychologists. All of us need to agree to stop paying attention to which kids are “smarter” than others, and, conversely, stop insisting that all kids are the same.

We need to stop assuming that a bored kid who refuses to do easy, repetitive homework is lazy. We need to stop making one-size-fits-all educational decisions like standardized high school exit exams that keep some kids from demonstrating their very important skills and interests. We need to start emphasizing how fun it is to work hard for a goal, whether or not you achieve it.

The data is in: The outdated idea that your genes determine your destiny is wrong. The newfangled idea that you can do anything you set your mind to is wrong.

We need to put our modern understanding of brain health squarely in the middle of how we parent and teach.

Posted in Avant Parenting, Culture Critic, Education, Psychology.

Not plants, not animals, but full of life

The hunt was on! Today my mother, three of her grandchildren, and I tromped down into the woods on a mushroom hunt.

Not gonna tell you where, no way.

It was a pretty fruitless search, it seemed. We kept seeing Deathcaps—gorgeous, shiny mushrooms that will kill you. We saw one very waterlogged and rotten King Bolete. Disconsolately, we took the path toward home.

Three enormous bags of chanterelles. Don't ask me where we found them!

Three enormous bags of chanterelles. Don’t ask me where we found them!

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something golden peeking up from the chaff. It was a chanterelle, the lovely mushroom every mushroom hunter in Northern California is out looking for right now. My daughter and I were lagging behind, so we called ahead that the others should stop. We dug up the mushroom and saw that it was in an advanced state of decay, waterlogged and inedible.

“Oh, well,” my mother said when she arrived. “We can come back her another day. Let’s take it with us, in any case, so no one else sees it.”

Just then, my daughter’s eyes got big. She pointed up into the chaparral on the hillside. “Mommy?” she said. “Do you see that?”

Through the brush we could see a bloom of golden-colored mushroom tops peeking through the chaff.

“Wow!” yelled my nephew.

And we were off. Up into the tangled underbrush we went. My mother stayed below, offering up cloth grocery bags as we needed them.

First we thought we’d found lots of chanterelles. Then we realized we’d found the motherlode.

We didn’t weigh them, but I’d say we got around 30 pounds. The retail price is probably dropping rapidly as the pro’s find stashes like the one we found, but last I looked it was over $20 per pound.

Will we sell them? No way.

This is something I love about California. The bounty of the land doesn’t just include those things we sow ourselves. We go mushroom hunting. My brother-in-law goes diving for abalone. My daughter loves to pick berries and miner’s lettuce in the woods.

I suppose this goes for a lot of places. The only foraging I remember from my childhood home in the Midwest was the excellent jam we made from deep dark purple wild grapes. But obviously, it made a pretty big impact on me that I still remember it now.

If you’re in the cold North, now is not the time for foraging (unless you tap maple trees!). But if you’re out here in CA, I highly recommend you take your kids out on a hunt. If you’re nervous about identifying mushrooms, you don’t have to pick them. Just looking for them and finding them is rewarding enough.

Santa Cruzans: One more day of our excellent fungus fair! See you there!


Posted in Culture Critic, Santa Cruz.

Taking ownership

I was out on a mushroom hunt this morning with my mother, going to a place where we knew there would be chanterelles, but we took a wrong turn in the forest and weren’t sure we were on the right path.

So we tried three solutions: first, push on to see if we were mistaken that we were on the wrong trail (we weren’t); second, go up to the top of a hill to see if we could get a sense of which direction we were off by (we couldn’t); finally, start back at a new starting point where we knew we could find the right trail—success!

Three enormous bags of chanterelles. Don't ask me where we found them!

Three enormous bags of very dirty chanterelles. Don’t ask me where we found them!

Result: Bucket full o’ lovely chanterelles!

I got to thinking that the mushrooming experience is a perfect metaphor for how I want my kids to approach their education. People in homeschooling groups have been discussing this article that ran in the New York Times a few days ago. In one group I’m in, someone pointed out something a professor posted in the comments:

“… By and large home-schooled kids tend to be bright, energetic, and with appalling focus issues – they are great at doing what immediately interests them, dreadful at doing “the boring stuff”. They also have remarkable amounts of detail about some topics and huge lacunae in other areas. …”

I actually agree with the professor that this is a danger that homeschoolers face: In allowing our kids to pursue their own educations, we sometimes don’t encourage them to develop the focus and grit that will help them be successful as college students and beyond.

In our house, we take a two-pronged approach to this problem. First, we let our younger kids follow their muse when it came to education. Certainly, we tried to expose them to a variety of things, but we didn’t force them to continue studying something they hated. We modeled perseverance, but we didn’t enforce it.

But now that we’re homeschooling a teen, we’ve altered that approach. While following your muse is great, sometimes when you pursue a goal you come upon obstacles. We feel it’s very important to help him learn to navigate the real world, in which not every class is interesting, not every teacher is a soulmate, and not every subject you study rocks your world. But, for example, if you want to be a computer scientist you are simply going to have to study algebra (sorry, kid).

So how do we foster perseverance and grit while also allowing for personal choice, inspiration, and dabbling—all important in their own right?

Cleaned, chopped, and ready to cook. Without perseverance, no yummy mushrooms!

Cleaned, chopped, and ready to cook. Without perseverance, no yummy mushrooms!

For us, it’s like my mushrooming trip:

First, simply deal with the fact that not every class you take is going to be fun, not every skill you learn will be easy to master, not every person you have to interact with will be a bosom buddy.

Second, be willing to push on and persevere if there still seems to be benefit in the path you’re taking.

And finally, know when to give up and try a better path.

Balance is the key here: But balance absolutely doesn’t mean that kids should be taught always to suck it up and continue with something that’s not working. That’s the school approach, one we have rejected.

In our house, we believe in following through with commitments. If our kids make a commitment and then one day say, ‘Oh, this is getting hard, I’m going to drop it,’ we don’t simply let them do it. We ask them to take stock of the situation, be clear about why they want to quit, and consider whether they’re quitting because of something important (the teacher is truly awful and they’re getting nothing from the experience) or something easily surmountable (this teacher’s style is not one they terribly like, but when they look at what they’ve done so far in the class, they’ve learned a lot in unexpected ways).

If they end up deciding to quit something, they are expected to take ownership of that decision. They can’t blame the teacher for not being a good teacher, for example. Instead, they can make a positive decision to use their time in a different way to achieve the goals of the class they were taking.

I hope this is teaching them that when working toward goals, they will almost always run across obstacles along the way.*

I hope that when they come up against “the boring stuff” that they have to do in order to succeed in their field, they see it as an obstacle that they can tackle in one way or another.

If not, perhaps they’ve started down the path that leads to amanitas instead of chanterelles.


* I hope that when they get to college, if they run into that professor, they’ll perhaps alter his opinion about homeschoolers a bit. However, anecdotal evidence shows that many people out in the wider world only notice homeschoolers when the homeschoolers do something to justify their low opinion of homeschoolers. So perhaps the professor won’t notice our kids at all, which would be a victory as well.

Posted in Avant Parenting, Homeschooling, Psychology.

Empty Shelves for Gifted Readers

This article was originally published on the Write4Kids industry blog. I was inspired to republish it (since it has dropped off their blog in recent times) by this notice in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin ( “There is a lack of age appropriate books for elementary children who read at a higher level than their grade… The only fiction available for their reading level are young adult books and the middle/high school subject matter is not appropriate for younger readers.” What I said a few years ago!

Most parents wonder how to get their kids to read more.

In our house, we had to have a penalty for unbridled reading! We’d send our son to his room to get dressed, and twenty minutes later we’d find him on the floor, pants half on, reading. He’d read anything he could get his hands on. He’d probably have starved if I didn’t physically take his book away at lunchtime.

Green glass sea

This is a lovely book for aspiring girl scientists—or any girl who doesn’t fit in.

Though voracious readers like my son aren’t the majority, there are many. Enough, in fact, that their parents find each other online to ask the same question, over and over:

What should I do? My child has run out of books!

Specifically, at two points in these readers’ young lives, there is a dearth of books aimed at high reading capacity but lower social/emotional development. I’ll use my son as an example.

Most, though not all, gifted readers start young. My son didn’t start young; he started to read at the boringly average age of 6 3/4. But unlike the other kids in his first-grade class, he didn’t slowly progress from ABC books to early readers to chapter books. In October, he was still pronouncing “the” as “tuh-HUH.” In November, he was reading anything he got his hands on.

The problem was, he was still six, and an emotionally young six at that. He blew through all the classic children’s repertoire in about a year. I remember my gratitude upon finding that there were over 30 books in the Oz series.

The advice we got from other parents, teachers, librarians, and booksellers was almost always off. Sure, Dick King-Smith books are adorable, but a kid like this can eat one up in half an hour. Harry Potter started out a boy, and the early books were just on the edge of too scary, but as Harry ages, the books get more terrifying to a young psyche and further from her experiences.

What these kids need is good, thick books with compelling storylines, rich vocabulary, and little-to-no violence. Writers could look to the past for models: White, Baum, and Wilder got these kids.

Somehow, we got our son through this period. We thought it would be smooth sailing till one day in the library he said, “I’ve read everything here.”

It was true, sort of. He’d read every possible book that wasn’t aimed at young adults. He was now going on 11, and entering that period of human development when all kids become more sensitive. Correspondingly, highly sensitive kids experience a fearful change in themselves and in the world around them.

And so I turned to my friends online again, and found out that once again, our kids were in synch. Though some of their kids had graduated to YA fiction with no problem, many of them tried it and responded like my son, with nightmares, repulsion, or just plain boredom.

Once again, my son needed more depth, more breadth, bigger stories and bigger conundrums. But he did not need more things to make him feel fearful, awkward, and uncertain. As an adolescent, he had enough of that racing around with his hormones.

A great lover of kids’ fantasy, he couldn’t take YA fantasy with its violent imagery and scary plotlines. As an emotionally young 11-year-old, he had no interest in the teen emotional world. He had read all the older classics for middle grades years before.

Though some of these kids can just skip straight into adult classics, my son found them difficult. (Also, when I read Oliver Twist out loud to him, I remembered that even nineteenth-century writers can’t be trusted not to include a horrific, vividly described murder scene!)

Some books that we have found to work really well for him include the Mysterious Benedict Society series, Carl Hiaason’s books, and Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series (which is, like early Harry Potter, just on the edge of too much graphic violence).

Writers could fill this hole with more books that offer the exciting plots, highly imaginative worlds, and character complexity of the best YA fiction, combined with a slightly safer world view, less visually stimulating violence, and no need for teen-level understanding of interpersonal relationships.

One of the common reactions of writers and readers of fiction who read this request is, “Well, fiction is all about conflict, so you can’t ask us to take out conflict.” And of course, that’s not at all what’s being proposed.

Instead, I ask writers to reconsider how the recent acceptance in our culture of the violence in visual media has affected their writing, and more importantly, their perceptions of “what YA readers want.” I suspect that my gifted readers aren’t the only ones turned off by the, frankly, stomach-turning and heart-wrenching violence in many YA books.

Recently, my son, 7-year-old daughter, and I listened to the audiobook of Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn in our car. It was so gripping that when we got near the end of the book, we sat in the car for a while and then finally I said, “OK, I’ll pop the CD and play it inside.” We just couldn’t put that book down.

The book turned out to be a perfect example of what we’ve been looking for: Though there is plenty of sexual yearning and a good measure of violence in the book, it was written with the slower pacing and moral footing of the Victorian fiction it was modeling.

The kids were fully able to ignore the romance, and the violence was never gratuitous. When one of the three main characters is killed, his death is properly mourned and relates to the theme of the novel. (Unfortunately, the second book in the series, with its creepier villains, frozen dead bodies, and weird flying squids, was way too much for my son and gave him nightmares.)

For both the age-groups I’m concerned with, modern fiction has done a great job of filling in the holes left in the classics for struggling readers: books that offer ease of reading and more excitement, books that take cues from visual media, books designed to tempt kids away from other pursuits.

But for the gifted reader, the library is shrinking. As the classics recede further into the past, and thus further from our kids’ experiences and language, very little is taking their place. The child who dashes through easy readers at the age of four can finish the whole of English language children’s literature by nine or ten. And the child who has done that might just have to skip to adult classics to fill the hours of reading she yearns for.

Gifted readers, especially adolescents, want to read current fiction just like their peers. Writers were often gifted readers themselves; perhaps they can channel that hunger they had for meaty, compelling, but not too scary books, and offer them up for their future biggest fans.

Visit my book lists for gifted readers:


Posted in Avant Parenting, Culture Critic, Education.

Tagged with .

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.