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A good word about teenagers

I’ve got teenagers. One of them is official—16—and the other one is some months off from having “teen” in her age. From what some parents say, you might expect that my next words will be complaints.

Teenagers are great!

Ha, fooled you! Or did I? Because I know that a few silent parents out there are like me. We are having a fabulous time raising our teens, and we read all those horrid articles wondering if a) we have exceptionally wonderful teenagers (unlikely), or b) we’re just incurably optimistic, sunny-faced people who don’t notice that we’re living with ogres.

Despite the fact that a few people lately have described me as “generally cheerful” (huh?), I can assure you that (b) is also incorrect. I’m not happy about having teens in my house because I only look at the bright side of things, because I fail to see my kids’ faults, or because I have a secret pill that I’m taking and that you want in on.

I’m happy with having my teens because teens are—this may shock you—so darn great to be around.

Why focus on the problems?

We all know about teens: They’re self-absorbed, snotty, rude, untrustworthy, messy, disordered, willful, self-righteous, yadda yadda yadda.

It’s all true, of course, with variation from individual to individual.

But what else is true about teens is much more worth discussing. Here are some true things about teens (both mine and the others I teach and know socially) that I value.

1. Teens care about justice

We adults have learned that the world is not black and white, and thus we are much more willing to settle for a muddy grey. Teens are not willing to settle. They are out there yelling themselves hoarse trying to get the rest of us to notice. But what the rest of us spend most of our time trying to do is shut up those darn, loud-mouthed teens who are so naive that they actually think they can solve the world’s problems. Perhaps we should admire them instead.

2. Teens can, and do, solve problems

Go to any high school and identify problems. Go to the administration and ask them to fix those problems, and you’ll most likely get a big yawn. No one cares about that, you’ll be told, or it’s not such a big problem, or that problem is minor considering how hard we’re going to have to work to get our test scores up so we don’t all get fired. If you want to solve a problem at a school, just get the teens interested in it. When they get fired up, they’re like an unstoppable army.

3. Teens are thoughtful

Many people, once they grow up, relax into the busy-ness of their daily lives and hardly give a thought to the way they’re living. But teens are full of thoughts. They’re full of ideas. Some of them are already shutting down and it’s hard to engage them in a conversation, but once you do, you’ll find that their brains are going full-tilt, even if the most common word you hear out of them is “whatever.”

4. Teens haven’t become themselves yet

This can be very frustrating for parents and teachers. We ask them, What do you want to do with your life? and they might not be able to answer. They seem to change daily, one day a model citizen and a juvenile delinquent (or so it seems) the next. Their opinions are strong but flighty. But the cool thing is how fascinating they are to watch as they flit through their ephemeral personas in search of who they will become. It’s instructive as an adult to remember that who we are, how we act, what we believe—all of this is by choice. Teens may change their choices daily, and that may not be optimal, but all of us could use a bit of self-questioning once in a while.

5. Teens bring new ideas and attitudes into our lives

I remember perhaps the first time that we were sitting at the dinner table and our son informed us about a current event he’d been reading about and his opinion on it. Perhaps he slowly grew into this, but it didn’t seem like it. To his parents, it seemed like one day he was a kid, and we were telling him things and listening to his droll, uninformed opinions, and the next we had this fascinating adult-in-the-making sitting across from us, bringing a new topic and viewpoint into our dinner table conversation.

This is not to say that I didn’t love my children’s droll childhood ramblings—I did and I’m sure I related a few of them on this blog in years past. But when your kids cross that invisible line and start taking part in conversations on something approaching an adult level, it’s wonderful and fascinating and thrilling. And like so many developmental changes, it seems to happen all at once, leaving parents gaping on the sidelines as their kids zoom past, developing (for the moment) at lightspeed.

6. Teens are people, too

One of the biggest failings of parenting approaches of the past (and some of the present ones as well) is that adults forgot the basic fact that each child is a unique, important, incredible person. With teens, it’s truly easy to shove them in a group and grumble about them. But taking the harder route is much more rewarding: when we treat teens as fully their own selves—capable, thoughtful, fascinating, lovely people—they work much harder to attain what we expect.

One of the most important realizations I had about parenting (and teaching) was when I learned about how educators who work with kids with special needs go about their jobs. They are trying to help kids with disabilities, but they don’t focus on the disability. (Not the ones I cared to listen to, in any case.) Long before mainstream education even got a whiff of this, special educators found a universal truth about humans: If you teach to their capabilities, their disabilities will come along for the ride. Focus on the positive, and encourage skills. Don’t forget about the disabilities, but don’t make it seem as if the child is the disability.

Teens are complex, growing, changing, fascinating human beings, and I am having a great time helping two of them along their path.

Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

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These are people who have died

Perhaps you remember the Jim Carroll song, “People who died.” It was one of those songs that completely blew me away the first time I heard it. Not so much the 2346th time.

However, it’s on my mind today. It’s on my mind because technology has done this weird thing: It won’t let people die.


Everything I put on the Internet, including my cat Nisene in the fog, achieves a sort of immortality. I just searched and found Nisene on Google Images! Immortality in all nine lives.

First, there’s my address book. In the past, after a few tries I found spiral bound paper agenda that I really liked, and every year I bought a new one. The one I liked had a small address book section in the back. Each year, I would transfer my important current contact information from one calendar to another.

“Important”: as in people I still like (at least sorta), people who still live near me, people who are alive.

When I was still using paper calendars, of course, I was younger, and more people I knew were alive. But then you keep going and life starts getting in the way. People you know succumb to the horrible diseases they’ve been living with (diabetes, multiple sclerosis), people you know and love die of old age, people you know get killed by terrorists, die of cancer, or…whatever.

The great thing about the paper address book at the back of my calendar is that each year, I culled the people who didn’t belong anymore. And perhaps that was one person per year.

But the digital lifestyle has changed all this. As my address book has grown, so has my hard drive. I don’t have to worry how many entries are in my address book—technology is far outpacing my addition of people important to my life.

And the result is…dead people.

Until last year, I just couldn’t face culling the deceased from my book. I do wish there were some feature in my address book to mark them “no longer with us” rather than just “delete.” But that’s not the case. In order to stop seeing my deceased loved ones (not to mention people I corresponded with briefly for an article I wrote), I have to delete them.

Deleting dead people is No Fun.

It seems so final. Yes, I should get over that. But it took me years to remove my lovely elderly friend Susie who was the first person more than 50 years older that I’d called a friend.

Susie was an aberration…until she wasn’t. People younger than I, people older than I, but within enough years to be in “my generation,” started to go. And I hesitated to remove them from my address book.

And then there’s social media.

LinkedIn, a service I find very useful as a business person, continues to recommend that I link with a former teacher of my son’s—a wonderful teacher, a truly incredible man—who succumbed to cancer a few years ago. Facebook lists several dead people as my “friends.”

I feel like we’re coming upon a new paradigm for “life.” Before the digital epoch, life was limited by flesh. And perhaps that limitation was extended a bit by paper in large buildings we called libraries. But life was life: You were born, you developed into the person you were going to be, you did stuff, then you died. If the stuff you did was deemed “important,” it might get “immortalized” on paper or film.

But in the digital life, nothing dies. In the European Union, they had to invent a “right to be forgotten.” In the US, we have no such luxury. Everything I do online is being sucked into the grand cyclone we call the Internet. When I step off this moral coil, my digital life won’t go with me.

I imagine my friends, my family, and my “friends” after I go: They join a new online service and they get the suggestion that they “friend” me, a dead person. They will be able to comment on my work, which will still be out there—alive, as it were. People I don’t know will receive suggestions for like-minded people to link to…including me, a dead person.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, hasn’t it been a goal of humans throughout the ages to achieve immortality? And doesn’t the Internet offer some sort of immortality? (Immortality 1.0. Sometime soon the Internet will be Old Hat and we’ll achieve Immortality 2.0. Stay tuned.)

On the other hand, seeing these dead people makes me sad.

I see dead people.”

Yes, I do, when I search in my address book for “house.” When I go onto LinkedIn to post an article and once again, it suggests dead people who would help me further my career. When Facebook asks me if I want to “share” my latest news…with dead people.

Ponce de Leon would be flabbergasted. Undaunted, we move on into this new stage of human existence. Dead people are dead, but they don’t go away. It’s comforting, in a way, that they never leave us. But it’s depressing, in another way, that we can’t let the dead rest.

Finally, I have started to cull. Every once in a while, I save a backup of my address book, then I delete. The friend, the teacher, the colleague. Delete, delete, delete.

Then I move on with my life. They had a right, I remind myself, to be forgotten.

Posted in Culture.

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Book Review: Creative Home Schooling grows up

It was the weighty Bible of gifted homeschoolers. You saw it on every shelf. My copy was so coveted, one of my homeschooling friends apparently walked off with it and it hasn’t been seen on my shelves since.

What was it? An extensively researched book called Creative Homeschooling by Lisa Rivero, published by Great Potential Press (who published my book, From School to Homeschool, ten years later).

The new version of Creative Homeschooling is slimmer and more focused on modern homeschooling.

Creative Homeschooling was exhaustive and a bit exhausting. At least one homeschooling mom I mentioned it to said that just looking at it gave her a headache! But it was a necessary resource when the Web was in its infancy. With the great changes in homeschooling since the first edition in 2002, homeschooling books have become something other than a resource list. At the time the first edition of Creative Homeschooling was released, however, parents were hungry for information.

“I wrote this book because I needed more information,” Rivero writes in her introduction to the new edition. “At the time, little had been published about homeschooling gifted children, and the Internet was not nearly the quick go-to resource it is today. Fewer people knew anyone who homeschooled or thought of it as a ‘normal’ choice.”

When I started homeschooling in 2007, Rivero’s book was already a classic. Although I couldn’t utter the G-word (“gifted“) in my usual homeschooling circles, as soon as I met another gifted homeschooler, we’d talk about Creative Homeschooling.

But now it’s 2015. People get their homeschooling information from the Web. Why a new version of this venerable homeschooling book?

Rivero says that the first thing she did in the revision process was to realize that her book was no longer valuable as an up-to-date resource list. In fact, even if she updated the list, it would go out of date quickly. The Web is the right place for resource lists. So what is left?

The new version of Creative Homeschooling is slimmer, more focused on the “why” and “how” of homeschooling. Paper listings go out of date immediately, but great advice is timeless.

“Present generation [homeschool] families have quickly learned that homeschooling a gifted child is not about finding the perfect approach or even the perfect resource; they know that the only way to make homeschooling work is to inform themselves as much as possible, and then to always make decisions based on their individual families,” Rivero says. “There is no book that can make those day-to-day decisions for them.”

Rivero’s book focuses on the keyword in its title: creativity. Homeschooling is not about following a formula, and learning is not about attaining a set body of knowledge. Modern education is all about creativity and flexibility; homeschoolers are well-situated in a world where being a lifelong learner is key to success (monetary or otherwise).

“Many of my college students can do a Google search in a heartbeat but are lost or anxious when it comes to organizing their own thoughts during an hour of solitude,” Rivero says. “Time is homeschooling’s greatest gift.”

Rivero gives away her point of view in many ways, not the least of which is starting her “Nuts & Bolts” section with thoughts on creativity. She focuses on creativity throughout, even when discussing such mundane topics as the loss of income in a household.

“Some homeschool parents give up a job to stay home with their children,” Rivero writes. “Often more stressful than the loss of income is the loss of intellectual and creative outlets.”


Author Lisa Rivero

The book’s emphasis is on “gifted” children, but the definition of that word has widened and Rivero’s advice is applicable to any child who is an asynchronous learner. Refreshingly, although Rivero’s book is aimed at families who value academics, she doesn’t push achievement-oriented learning. Rivero doesn’t jump on any bandwagons. Her material is based on research, such as questioning the validity of learning preferences, a bit of a sacred cow amongst homeschoolers at the moment.

The updated edition incorporates much of the cutting edge psychological and neurological research that has happened in the years since its first writing. Rivero includes information gleaned from research, such as Carol Dweck’s Mindset, takes on the right brain/left brain fallacy, argues for considering the problem of applying labels to children, and takes on the damage that overly high expectations can have on developing minds.

The new Creative Homeschooling isn’t the resource Bible it once was. It’s now a lean and focused look at the value and challenge of homeschooling bright children. The fact that it’s only being offered as an e-book is perhaps its most telling feature. This book is not a romantic look at homeschooling past, but rather a guide into homeschooling’s future.

Creative Homeschooling
by Lisa Rivero
Great Potential Press, 2014
Buy at or Barnes & Noble

Posted in Books, Homeschooling, Parenting.

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Impractical shoes

I found myself standing on one side of a sea of a chai latte river, wondering how I’d gotten myself into this pickle.

I knew I shouldn’t have packed the impractical shoes.

The first pair of really impractical shoes I remember owning was when I was in high school. Every girl was buying Candies boots. They were—if I remember correctly—cowboy-styled shoes with an early-80s update. Mine were blond leather with wood-grain heels.

The heels were very, very high.

Manolo Blahnik

If I could, would I wear ridiculously high-heeled shoes? Oh, yeah, I admit that I’d be happy to do it if I thought it wouldn’t cripple me for life!

Of course, the heels were high enough on a typical girl, but at that point my feet had finally reached a size 5, the smallest of women’s sizes. Before that, I’d shopped in the kids’ department. So 4-inch heels on my feet were not comparable to 4-inch heels on average women’s feet.

Average women were standing on the balls of their feet. I was nearly en pointe.

The first day I wore those boots to school, I stubbornly refused to learn the obvious lesson: I was not cut out to wear impractical shoes. I wore them again, even though I could hardly walk and was in major pain by the end of the day.

Finally, my track coach decided it for me. He announced at our first practice of the spring that all team members were forbidden to wear high heels because of the risk of damage to the tendons in the foot.

That decided it. I went to flats. Soon after I discovered punk and adopted black boots as my shoe of choice, and impractical shoes were in my past.

Like many women who have had babies, my feet have gone through some changes. They’re hardly longer—by length I should be wearing a size 5 and a half at this point—but they are wider and more picky than ever. After a lecture from another man who’d never donned impractical shoes—this time a podiatrist—I resorted to ordering EEE-width shoes on the Internet rather than letting my local shoe seller talk me into their cute, much too narrow latest styles.

But before the podiatrist, and well before the river of chai latte, was my final purchase of impractical shoes. It was at my local shoe seller that I got talked into them. They are cute. The heels are modest, probably an inch and a half, and I have to admit, they make my legs look great. Even though my joints forced me to give up running years ago, those heels did their job and made all the right convex and concave formations appear on my legs. And given how “low” the heels were, I could even walk in them. Even better, my shoe seller explained, they were made by a company that also made sneakers, and the sole was made to be more comfortable and better for the feet.

More comfortable and better for the feet, certainly, than shoes designed by Manolo Blahnik, but torture for my poor stunted, spread out dogs. I bought the shoes, wore them a couple of times, then put them high up in the closet.

Along comes my mystery weekend—so mysterious I didn’t yet know that it would involve a river of chai latte flowing down Van Ness Avenue. For my birthday my husband announced he was taking me away—somewhere—and we would do…something. He said, “bring mostly casual clothes, but one nice outfit.”

Now, men, any woman can tell you, are not all alike. However, there are some truths that apply to most straight men, and one of them is that they don’t understand how delicate the task of donning the right clothing for the right occasion is. Men generally have three levels of clothing: scruffy/play, nice/work, and wedding/funeral. Men’s clothing is designed with this trinity in mind. Men who enjoy dressing well might own khakis for casual, trousers and a button up shirts for work, and a nice suit for other occasions, happy and somber.

My own husband falls a little to the left of that scale. He works in an industry where common work attire seldom rises above a somewhat clean t-shirt, so he has few occasions to worry about whether his dress is suitable for the occasion.

For me, however, what I choose to wear is tied into what I’m doing, who I’m seeing, where I might be going, and what mood I’m in. Certainly, when I had little kids I ended up in jeans and t-shirts almost exclusively, but now that they’re older I spend a bit more time figuring out what “feels” right to wear before I get dressed.

Packing for my mystery chai latte adventure, therefore, sent me into a bit of a tizzy. And in the midst of that tizzy, what did I do but pack those darn impractical shoes. I packed them even after I took them down off the high shelf, stepped into them, and said out loud, “Who am I kidding? I’ll never wear these again.”

And into the suitcase they went.

The mystery weekend turned out to be a lovely, child-free couple of days spent in San Francisco. The nice clothing was for an event at Davies Symphony Hall. And as I dressed for it, I realized I needed to give those impractical shoes another spin. I was not yet thoroughly convinced that I couldn’t wear them.

So there we were, walking down Van Ness Avenue, almost to Davies, when the river appeared before us. It flowed down a side street, turned the corner, and spilled onto Van Ness. It was a gorgeous milky brown, the color of my favorite drink. And thank goodness, it didn’t smell of what it was actually composed of.

It did, however, pose a problem. How to get over to Davies across the flowing river of muck? We ended up having to walk, along with other symphony goers, down the middle of Van Ness, the cars creeping by us in the far left lane, we in the middle, the chai river hogging most of the right.

Perhaps these shoes really do have a sole designed like a sneaker, but let’s be serious here, high heels are not made for comfort. They’re made because they form all those nice convex and concave contours in any woman’s leg. Those of us who think we’re too skinny see flesh pop and curve. Those of us who think we have to much flesh enjoy the definition of our muscles.

The river dwindled to a creek then a stream, and my husband—wearing his sneakers even to the symphony because he’s no fool—could certainly have jumped it. But in my impractical shoes, I had to wait until I could step daintily over the sewage and onto the sidewalk. Because of my uncomfortable shoes, I had to walk even longer than I would have.

I swore that when I got home, I’d send them to the Goodwill. But when I got home, there was their nice, comfy box waiting for them. I put the shoes back in the box and left it on the floor of my closet.

I’ll give them away to someone who will appreciate them, I thought.

There they sat, until one day I sighed, picked up the box, and placed back on that high shelf.

Posted in Culture, Sexual Politics.

Hitting the sweet spot at the science fair

I read the article “Science Fairs Aren’t So Fair” (The Atlantic) with some interest, given that my kids are longtime participants in our local and state science fairs. As a parent who hasn’t fallen into the helicopter-parent trap that the writer describes, I thought I’d enjoy her little exposé.

Only two kinds of science fair parents, really?


Families enjoying each other’s board during our local science fair’s public hours.

As a short recap, the article starts with the premise that there are two kinds of parents: the parents who dread the science fair because it asks students to do something they aren’t prepared to do, and other parents who basically do the work for their kids and compete with each other. I don’t disagree that these two groups of parents exist, but at least in my experience, they don’t make up the majority of science fair parents. More importantly, I can’t agree with her conclusion that it’s the kids of the pushy parents who end up winning.

It depends on how you define winning.

Our science fair experiences have included both sets of parents described above. The hovering helicopter parents are certainly annoying—they create gorgeous boards for their kids, write their reports for them, and then train their kids to answer the judges’ questions like performing animals. Sometimes their kids win at their school and county levels—but are they really winning?

The article goes on to quote Google’s first science fair winner, who says that those helicopter parents started turning up in elementary school. She describes standing next to another kid whose project had clearly been completed by an over-involved professor-dad.

But here’s what she doesn’t point out:

She won the Google Science Fair. Not the kids whose parents let them use million-dollar equipment. Not the kids whose parents coached them and created beautiful boards. She won. She doesn’t say why, but I bet I can guess.

But kids can’t do science!

Here’s a quote from the writer of the article, who falls into the “science fair dreaders” camp:

“Much of the parental anger seems to stem from the fact that the bulk of science fairs ask children to produce something, in some cases competitively, that is well beyond their abilities,” she writes.

These parents who act put-upon about being asked to support their kids in inquiry learning outside of school are closer to the helicopter parents than they want to believe. Inquiry-based science isn’t a mystery—it’s something that preschoolers do every day. But we train our kids to think is “hard” and “serious” once they enter elementary school.

It seems to me that the put-upon parents are acting just as competitively as the helicopter parents, except they’re choosing to be the slackers on campus rather than the geeks.

Finding a middle ground


Yucky moldy bananas in my kitchen. It must be science fair time!

So how should parents who want their kids to succeed in the science fair offer support? Well, first of all, if your kid isn’t into it, that’s totally fine. If your 10-year-old needs to do inquiry-based science at home for an assignment, find one of the basic, fun, and yes, hardly original experiments that they can do. Put some fruit out on a tray and take photos of it as it gets moldy. Create three kinds of paper airplanes and hypothesize about which one will fly the furthest. It really doesn’t matter what you do—the main point is to have fun and let your child know that anyone can do this.

Science is not a mystery—babies practice it every day.

If your child is into it, however, you are not required to be a helicopter parent. In fact, you won’t be helping if you do all the work. Let your child struggle; let him make mistakes; let her go in a wrong direction and document it. That’s science. That’s learning. On the other hand, don’t let your child drown in service of your wish not to be a helicopter parent. Offer all the support you can, and if you can’t support your child, find another adult who can help out. The key is that it’s your child’s goal, not yours, that you are supporting.

How to avoid hovering

My son, for the record, does all his science without any help from me. After the first few sentences of his report on the programming language he invented, all I’m doing is scanning for typos. His knowledge is more advanced than mine and I know it. However, he does need support in a few areas. One is scheduling: I know that it helps him to put the various stages of preparation on the calendar with reminders, so once the dates are announced we do that together. Another area he asks for help with is, yes, the board. But the sort of help I give—cutting, pasting things on straight, and comments like “I think that font should be bigger”—are support, not “doing it for him.” (In fact, I would love to design cool boards for him, but he complains if I make even the smallest decision about the visual design. So much for my attempts to live through my children!)

Why do we work this way? First, early on I was attracted to the “I’ve got your back” theory of parenting. This came from a mom who was describing to me why she couldn’t go with behavioralist style parenting techniques that make the parent the enforcer. She said, “If nothing else, I want my kids to know that I’m there for them. When they’re having trouble, I want them to know that I’ve got their back.”

Second, research into child behavior, learning, and brain development is all pointing the same way: Kids who are supported and feel comfortable learn more easily, but kids who struggle in their learning learn more deeply and go further. So in preparing for the science fair—and in parenting in general—I hope to hit the sweet spot between raising kids who know that their parents love and support them, and raising kids who learn the value of struggling through something hard to reach a goal that they set themselves. I suspect that the parents of kids who excel at the top levels of science fairs, such as Google’s, have parents who have hit the sweet spot particularly well.

Why do so many parents go to extremes?


Any kid can do fun experiments in the density of different liquids. You don’t have to do cutting edge research to have fun and learn.

Let’s face it:

It’s easy to be that complaining parent who says that their eight-year-old isn’t capable of inquiry learning.

And it’s very tempting to live through our kids and make sure that they succeed at all costs.

But that sweet spot is like balancing in the middle of a seesaw. It’s not simple, and it never stops being a challenge. However, when parents support their children in a goals they set, they always see success—even when their children don’t win awards. To see our children striving, learning, and growing should be all the success we’re looking for.

Posted in Education, Parenting.

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Five Writing Mistakes I Learned from Harry Potter

I wrote this essay a couple of years ago after attending a rather dispiriting writing workshop, which was led by agents who pretty much insisted that if you aren’t doing what everyone else is doing, you will never get published. Each of the rules below were ones I heard at this conference. I’m republishing it now inspired by this weekend’s SCBWI Golden Gate Conference, a lovely, supportive environment wholly at odds with that other one. This piece was originally published on the Write for Kids blog.

Harry Potter

What do you do when J.K.Rowling does everything you’re not supposed to do?

I once heard a writer of adult literature read an essay she’d written about how Checkhov proved all truisms about what makes a well-written story wrong. But writers of children’s literature don’t have to go literary to get examples of their own. Here are five rules of writing I learned in children’s writers workshops, and what a quick rereading of the opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone says about such advice.

1) Kids’ books should never start with adults, a.k.a. “kill the mother.”

True, Harry doesn’t have a mother. But the first book immortalizing this character starts with the Dursleys, who aren’t even major characters. Their names are apparently Mr. and Mrs. Their son is “small”—definitely not a middle grade fiction reader. As we move forward with the confusing narrative, we meet elderly wizards sitting on a wall. This goes on for seventeen pages. The wizards talk about a baby. A giant arrives (OK, this sounds exciting, except he), bursts into tears, and needs to use an enormous hanky.

2) Kids’ books need to introduce the central tension immediately, without any confusion about “what this book is about.”

Yes, we do find out that Harry has been orphaned and he is going to live with “Muggles,” whatever they are. But we don’t get a whiff of the central tension of this book, or the series, anywhere near the first pages of this book. The Dursleys, who open the book, are always bit players, the tragi-comic relief of the series. You-Know-Who is mentioned but is apparently dead. And Harry himself, the boy who lived, literally sleeps through the scene. Judging from the opening, what the Harry Potter character “wants” is a good night’s sleep!

3) Kids’ books need to stick with a kid’s point of view.

Students, take note: Kids don’t want to read about what grown-ups are thinking and feeling. Never, ever write about a grown-up’s perspective or a grown-up’s concern. This line from Harry Potter must be a fluke: “It seemed that Professor McGonagall had reached the point she was most anxious to discuss, the real reason she had been waiting on a cold, hard wall all day…”.

4) Never start with generalized background descriptions of our characters.

I need only quote the second paragraph of Harry Potter: “Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

I could stop there (it’s pretty self-evident), but I must channel now the voices of JK Rowling’s writers’ group, who all learned what children like when they took writing classes as adults. “Now, Jo, you’ve got to cut all that Dursley nonsense. All those details can come up when they’re necessary. No kid is going to get past that first page with an expository paragraph like that!”

5) Children get impatient with long descriptions—keep it to a few words.

I can’t do better than Rowling, who stakes her £560 million on the belief that children do love a delicious description: “Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked as though it had been broken at least twice. This man’s name was Albus Dumbledore.”

So what does it tell us that the biggest selling children’s series in history breaks every one of the “unbreakable” rules offered in children’s writing workshops? I think it tells us a few things:

First, it tells us that great writing makes its own rules. I’m sure that if Rowling had followed all of the above advice, one of the twelve big publishing houses that rejected the book would have published it. And I’m equally sure that there would now be no Harry Potter mania of the sort we’ve seen. It would have been a fine book, as dismissible as the other fine but dismissible books that publishers feel safe publishing.

Second, it tells us that writers who want to rise above the din need to stay true to themselves. If the story that speaks to you is about wizards, it just can’t matter that the publishing industry says (as they did before HP) that kids are over wizards and are looking for dystopian romance or some such. A fine writer can crank out fine books that sell well by catering to the market. A writer who wants to do more must follow her muse, which may be whispering a long paragraph full of flowery adjectives in her ear.

Finally, the success of Harry Potter tells us that the publishing industry is too quick to elevate practical advice to received wisdom. Every piece of advice quoted above is good advice in many cases, but that doesn’t mean that it’s law. Of course, good writers work on their craft, and they try out advice to see if it improves their writing. But good writers, unlike mediocre writers, are not beholden to the rules.

As Harry Potter himself might say, when what you know to be true is at stake, there’s no point in following rules just to stay safe.


Posted in Books, Writing.

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 Culture, Education, Parenting, 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.

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 Homeschooling, Parenting, 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 Education, Parenting, Writing.

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