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Teach your children well

I joined an auditorium full of parents and teachers last week to hear psychologist Madeline Levine talk about where we’re going wrong in our education and our parenting.

For me personally, the auditorium full of people was like a village meeting. I saw and spoke to parents from almost every school my children have been to, from preschool on up to high school. And though we think of Santa Cruz County as a relatively populous place, when it comes to parents we’re truly a small town. My son’s current homeschool program teacher knew the preschool parents who in turn knew the mom from the private school who in turn knew other homeschooling friends.

Homeschoolers ahead of the curve?

Teach your children wellBut on to Levine’s talk: As I sat listening in my little pod of homeschoolers, I thought, we are definitely not her target audience. Everything she said was part of why we are homeschoolers. For example, she pointed out that our education system forces students to think that in order to be successful adults, they have to be good at everything. On the contrary, she pointed out, “You don’t have to be good at everything, you go to your strong side,” illustrating it with the fact that she always has to ask for help from the audience when figuring out percentages. This is a fact of human development that drives many a student to homeschooling: our educational system makes them feel like failures for their weaknesses, and doesn’t offer them the opportunity to build on their strengths.

Another thing Levine pointed out is that plenty of parents are dissatisfied with their local schools, but they always say there is no community support. But, she says, when she’s signing books, “Everybody in line says I’m the only one in my community.” Again, we homeschoolers have found each other largely because homeschooling is nearly impossible to do well without community. School parents are given a pre-formed community, but they are seldom forced to take advantage of it the way we are.

Another point Levine made was allowing children to have “successful failures”—failures that teach them to reach higher to attain their goals. She points out that today’s “helicopter parents” try to pad their children’s lives so that all they do is succeed. The problem is, those children eventually leave home, and are often devastated by their first small failure because they have no experience in it. This is a situation that is much easier to bring about in homeschooling. In school, if a child fails the consequences can be relatively severe (from their point of view), such as a bad grade or in some schools, losing privileges like recess. In homeschool, we can allow failure in a more natural way. My son, for example, had a bad experience with an online class where he didn’t pay enough attention to the way the grades were being calculated. He ended up doing pretty poorly, even though he’d turned in good work. He learned, with no longterm consequences, to pay more attention to things like due dates and late penalties.

She also spoke about how public education has not kept up with our changing workforce. Our public education system was designed to produce dependable factory workers, people who can follow directions and produce consistent results. Our current work world is quite different; factory workers have lost their jobs to automation. Levine points out, “Every school should have project based learning because it’s collaborative – in the real world we’re collaborating all the time.” Again, this is something that homeschoolers are able to do so much more readily. Since there are no grades and it’s all about enjoyment while learning, collaborative projects are natural to incorporate.

What we really want for our kids

Levine reminded the audience that when she asks parents what they want for their kids, they almost never mention income or status. “We want to raise people who are happy and find meaning in life,” Levine reminds us. And our educational system simply is not geared to do that. As a psychologist, she is seeing more kids who are stressed out about school. In the past, she said, kids would suffer from other life stresses—a divorce or bullying, for example. But now she gets kids who get a B and worry that they won’t get into Harvard and their lives will be ruined.

Many homeschoolers are what we call “public school refugees,” people who didn’t come to homeschooling on principle but instead because they were saving their children. I have known former school children who came to homeschooling after attempted suicide, devastating bullying from peers, debilitating pressure from schools to raise their test scores, and absolute loss of motivation and love of learning.

I always hold out hope that the homeschooling movement will get serious attention from people who make educational decisions in our country, but I know that often we are dismissed as ignorant or worse. It’s heartening to know that people like Levine are coming at it from the opposite direction, giving legitimacy to basic principals that homeschoolers have been acting on for years.

Further reading:

Posted in Avant Parenting, Education, Homeschooling.

Back to home/school – vive la différence!

Another year, another set of decisions about education. When my son was going into kindergarten, we thought we’d choose a school and that would be it until 6th or 8th grade. Ah, doesn’t the universe have a way of making a mockery of everything we know?

I took this photo for an article I wrote about my daughter's choosing to go to school...for an unschooling magazine! Amazing how life changes and we parents just have to roll with it.

I took this photo for an article I wrote about my daughter’s choosing to go to school…for an unschooling magazine! Amazing how life changes and we parents just have to roll with it.

My older child has attended:

  1. 1 preschool
  2. 1 private kindergarten
  3. 1 charter school
  4. 2 private elementary schools
  5. 1 middle school public homeschool program
  6. 2 online schools
  7. 1 high school public homeschool program
  8. community college both online and in person

My younger child has attended:

  1. 2 preschools
  2. 1/3 year kindergarten at a private school
  3. 1/3 year kindergarten in a public homeschool program
  4. 4 more years in that homeschool program
  5. 1 online school
  6. 1 neighborhood public elementary school

No wonder I sometimes feel weary when people ask me about their own educational choices. What have I NOT tried?

What I’ve come to realize is that education is always a year-by-year decision. Even when parents think their child will stay in the same school forever, they probably face a coming year with some qualms. Is this the right educational choice? What if it’s not a good fit with the teacher? What if my child is more interested in after school sports than math? Would we all be happier unschooling? Is there a better school, with better teachers and perhaps better friends for my child? Am I screwing up my child’s future??

Well, I at least have decided to let go of that last one. I’m doing what I can to create the right education for each child. This year, our choices for each child are radically different:

The fifteen-year-old is just loving being a homeschooler. He loves the hours (though he’s not a late sleeper). He loves the flexibility which allows him to pursue his passion, computer science, with an almost single-minded fervor. He really likes his public homeschool program, where he has met some good friends and is reminded that it takes all kinds to make up a community. He enjoyed his community college class last spring and is going for more this year. He really, really loves not having to do PE.

The eleven-year-old, my original homeschooler, decided last year that she wanted to try school. She was in sixth grade, but it was Middle School Lite because our neighborhood elementary had two self-contained sixth grade classrooms. That meant that she was in a school with a total of less than 300 kids, in a room with the same 31 kids and the same teacher each day. This year? We looked at all sorts of options, including homeschooling, a small charter school, and our district junior high, and she has decided to go for the big guns and attend a 700+ student middle school in a neighboring district. Today, in advance of the first day of school, she spent over an hour poring over their lunch menus, their student newspaper, and anything else she could find online.

I hope that each of my children excels in the environments we’ve chosen. I think my family is a clear example of why you simply can’t say that there is one right way to educate children. Who would have believed that I would become a committed homeschooler? Who would have believed that my child who couldn’t last a full day of kindergarten simply loved public school last year? Who would have believed that my compliant “good student” would become a happy homeschooler-bordering-on-unschooler?

I read with great interest articles by people on all sides of the education debate about what works for students. But if there is one thing that turns me off, it’s someone who refuses to acknowledge that the most important thing our educational system needs is flexibility and choice. You can cite all the test scores and studies you want—what I know is what I have seen with my own kids and with every other family I know. The safe option, the easy option, and the obvious option is not always the right option. My two kids, born of the same parents and raised in the same house, are going two very different directions.

May they both thrive!

Vive la différence!

Posted in Avant Parenting.

The Feminist Homeschooler

If you are like I was before I started homeschooling, your view of homeschooling moms goes something like this:

  • They are separatist Christians
  • They homeschool because their husbands or churches tell them to
  • They are probably not terribly well-educated themselves
  • They use Bible-based curriculum that doesn’t teach children the whole truth about the world
  • They are raising their children to be subservient girls and dominant boys

feminismThere are certainly some homeschooling moms who fit this description, though I’ve never met one who fits it to a T. However, those of you who know my homeschooling community know what kind of a shock I was in for when I became the world’s most reluctant homeschooler after my daughter didn’t take to kindergarten.

The homeschooling moms I’ve met (yes, they are mostly moms, but more on that in a moment) are as varied in background, theology, and political views as the general population. (Though of course, I will admit that where I live, conservative homeschoolers are just about as populous as conservative voters, which is to say I’ve met very few…)

How would I describe homeschooling moms?

  • From deeply religious to lackadaisically atheist
  • Committed to educating their children as best they can but from within their own definition of what education is (which varies greatly from family to family)
  • Committed to raising children who are comfortable with themselves and have learned how to figure out what they want and how to get it (whether or not society defines what they want as “success”)

So I can say that the public perception of homeschoolers, at least where I live, is pretty far off. When a group of homeschoolers gets together to talk about how they educate their kids, you find out that in the generalities they may seem similar, but when you get down to specifics, each homeschool is as different as each child.

But there are some overwhelming similarities when you look through a gender-based lens:

  • Almost all of the full-time homeschooling parents are women
  • Most homeschoolers are growing up in two-parent, heterosexual households
  • Most of the homeschooling moms left careers to homeschool
  • Many of the moms still work part-time, but even those moms often seem to have changed careers so that their work is more compatible with homeschooling

So of course, seeing this as I started homeschooling, I wondered how to view this from a feminist perspective. Is this a throwback world where women are disregarding everything our mothers and grandmothers fought for? Or is this something new that only looks from the outside like a throwback?

I gave a talk on this topic at the HSC Conference a couple of years ago and recently at the DLC in Santa Cruz. The moms that came were the sorts of women that I have gotten to know during my homeschooling years: smart, committed to raising well-educated children, able to “think outside the box” as far as what education and success are. They are all the sort of homeschoolers that I respect and admire.

Yet many of us feel ambivalent about our choice to step back from a career to raise our children. Those of us who are still working while homeschooling know that clinging to our work (whether from financial or emotional necessity) can sometimes conflict with our success in homeschooling. We can feel uncomfortable being financially dependent on our husbands. We sometimes wonder whether our own education was wasted on us since we haven’t gone out and had fabulous careers to “justify” spending the money and time to educate us.

But all those fears and conflicts are more than canceled out by our real homeschooling experiences. Many women at my talks mentioned their own personal growth that has come from homeschooling, from needing to relearn things that were difficult the first time around to finding out new things about ourselves in the process of homeschooling.

Women also mention how important they feel that their influence is on their children. Their kids might not see a mom modeling the “independent woman” paradigm, but they do see their moms as strong leaders, caring community members, equal (though not “the same”) partners with their spouses, and lifelong learners willing to tackle pretty much anything. (How many of us thought that dissecting roadkill would be part of our adult lives?)

Homeschooling itself is conducive to raising feminist kids. Separated from oppressive school cultures that enforce clear gender roles, our kids develop in whatever direction feels right to them. So when you get together with a group of homeschoolers, you will often wonder at the genders of several of the children in the group – boys with long hair wearing capes, girls with short hair and not a shred of pink to be seen. And because they are homeschooling, their education will reflect their interests rather than some authority’s idea of what they should be interested in. This leads to young adults with a firm sense of identity.

Whether they call themselves feminists or not, many homeschoolers typify what a feminist is: someone who believes that all people should have the opportunity to express who they are without succumbing to society’s ideal for their gender.

And that gets back to the moms. Many of us made a choice to homeschool; some of us were forced due to circumstance. But once we start homeschooling, we realize that we have not taken a step back. We are just entering a period of reinvention in our lives. As one mom said, “When I left my job and started homeschooling, I had to reinvent myself. Once my children are grown, I will just reinvent myself again.”

That’s the spirit—the feminist homeschooler spirit!

Posted in Culture Critic, Homeschooling.

Imaginary friends

When my second child was a baby, I read somewhere that although imaginary friends are common for firstborns, they are much less common for subsequent children. The writer’s opinion on this phenomenon was that a) the older siblings teased the younger ones out of having imaginary friends, and b) the younger ones didn’t really need them, anyway.

That was all I needed to cement my resolve that if my second wanted to have imaginary friends, our family would welcome them with open arms!

Our first child’s first imaginary friend turned up one day when he was two. I noticed that he was holding something carefully pinched between his thumb and forefinger. The thing was very small… or invisible.

“What do you have there, Buddy?” I asked.

“This is Peter,” he said solemnly.


For a short time, our son transferred his invisible imaginary friend Peter to this figurine. Recently I was cleaning out toys to give away and found Peter… no way I could give him away!

We have no idea where he got the name Peter, as the crowd of friends that followed had rather more fanciful names: Seiterint, Peachwiss, Snakeless… His friends hung around for years. They were the source companionship at an age when he had trouble connecting with other kids, and a great source of family lore. We especially loved Seiterint, who lived on an island near Japan and who sometimes did naughty things in our household.

So we watched carefully for the arrival of our second child’s set of imaginary friends. As soon as we saw it, we had a heart-to-heart talk with her older brother, letting him know that older siblings were often the cause of kids being embarrassed about their imaginary friends, and this wasn’t going to happen. Given that at age 5 his imaginary life was still going strong, he became a willing participant.

Our younger child’s friends were complete different and just as wonderful in their own way. They grew out of her affection for a burpcloth that she carried around with her, so of course, the first one was named “Burp” — or, in her dialect, “Bup.” Burp soon acquired a host of companions all named Burp with added initials or last names. Burp lived in La Selva House, which is in Africa. Eventually, she decided that Africa was the next-door neighbor’s front yard.

I am glad that we were so successful in nurturing our second child’s imaginary friendships. Just like our son, her imaginary friends carried her through the years that she was developmentally out of step and didn’t connect with other kids. At the tail end of our son’s imaginary friendships (at least, that he told us about!), they even created a connection through their worlds. Our son had given his imaginary friends an imaginary airline, which he drew logos for and told stories about. Our daughter joined in, creating her own imaginary airline and offering us tickets and even issuing pilot licenses.

Both of my children now have healthy friendships with other [real] children. Although preschool teachers were always fretting about whether they would ever graduate past parallel play with kids their age, they eventually got it. But just as in other developmental areas, they were simply on a different developmental path. It’s hard when you’re a parent to withstand pressure from outside to mold your young children to social expectations. I will never forget the terrible feeling of my grandfather taking my blanky from me and saying I was too old for it — and will also never forget how my mother got it back to me later that day.

Imagination is one of the most wonderful things about childhood – before children are self-conscious enough to hide it, they can create the friendships they need, play out social scenarios, and incorporate fascinating details from the wider world into their own little lives.


blog_hop_aug14_gifted_friendships_smallHoagies’ Blog Hop August 2014: Gifted Friendships

Friendship. One word that has many meanings. For most kids, friends are those they play with. But for the gifted child, friendship is often far more than that. Gifted friendships can be more complex, more deep, and more difficult to find. Read more at Hoagies‘.

Posted in Avant Parenting, Psychology.

The search for the girl scientist in literature

Note: This piece was published by a publishing industry blog a few years ago, but they have apparently reworked their site and I can’t find it anymore. So I am reposting it here. This is one of the pieces that I have written that people find over and over—we need to support our scientist/techy/mathy girls, and part of that is letting them know through literary role models that they aren’t alone. Unfortunately, I got some wonderful suggestions on that blog for other books, but they are now lost! If you have any other girl scientists up your sleeve, please do leave comments!

My eight-year-old daughter is a scientist. This isn’t a career choice. This is just a fact of her being.

When she was 18 months old, she accidentally pulled on her sensitive big brother’s hair.

He cried!

Green glass sea

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

Another child might have felt guilty or might have been upset. Not my daughter. She had only one possible reaction:

I wonder what will happen when I do that again!

And again and again.

Fast forward seven years, and she’s a regular exhibitor at our county science fair. If I want her to practice her penmanship, we do science. If she learns new words, it’s through science.

In the midst of this we had an accidental book club. We’re homeschoolers, and we do a lot of driving. Those two combined mean that we love audiobooks. I balk at the high price tag, so we get most of our audiobooks from the library. This means that more often than not, we listen to whatever happens to be on the shelves.

Unintentionally, two of the books we listened to were about girls who love science.

The first was The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. This lovely book by Jacqueline Kelly covers nearly a year in the life of a girl living in rural Texas at the turn of the 20th century. She forms an unexpected alliance with her grandfather, an amateur naturalist, and becomes entranced with science the way that some girls now become entranced with teen idols.

This positive portrayal of a girl scientist in a place where she is so completely out of place is riveting. Not only did it inspire more interest in evolution and botany in my already science-loving kids, but it presented the role model of a girl who is a scientist against all odds.

The second book, The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages, is also historical, set in Los Alamos as scientists work desperately to create the “gadget” that will end the war. Dewey is a born scientist also, in this case, an inventor. She loves to create her own gadgets, and largely ignores the taunting of the other kids. When she is unexpectedly required to spend a few weeks living with another family, she forms an alliance with another misfit girl, who is finding her calling as an artist.

Sea and Tate are very different books. In Tate, the negative pressure on the main character comes largely from adults. In Sea, however, adults are largely charmed by Dewey’s inventiveness, but the kids are just short of brutal to her.

In both books, however, today’s girl scientists can see girls sticking to science because it is what calls to them. Interestingly, both books almost ignore the girls’ schooling, which seems tangential to their real lives.

In the midst of this mini girl-scientist book festival, it occurred to me to look for more books. In my wanderings, I got a recommendation to ask Tanya Turek, who runs the blog She mentioned that Sea has a sequel, White Sands, Red Menace, which I had found.  She also reminded me of A Wrinkle in Time, which fits closely enough to the theme I was looking for. But then she came up with a blank.

“I spent quite a bit of time on the internal book search system at the Barnes & Noble where I work as well as the internet and I could not come up with any more books that what I suggested already,” she e-mailed me. “I think that there really, truly are only a handful of books that have scientific themes AND female protagonists.”

I can imagine the reasons for this: Few women are scientists, and scientists in general are unlikely also to be fiction writers, so when you look for the cross-section of those two small groups, you apparently only come up with two current writers amongst our many writers of fiction for children.

To explain the lack of these books, however, does not excuse it! We need more books about girls who love science. Girl scientists, even in the 21st century, meet with a good measure of what met Calpurnia in 1899 and Dewey in 1945: misunderstanding, social pressure, and disappointment. Books are where misfit kids can find themselves, and where they find out they aren’t misfits after all.

When my daughter was three, she was nearly impossible to have in a preschool room. All order would be upset; all expectations would be stymied. Forget learning outcomes, her teachers just wanted her to stop experimenting!

I finally found the right teacher for her. One day when I went to pick her up, Cari said, “I have realized what is going on here. Your daughter is a scientist. She must find out how everything works, and the laws behind everything the classroom.”

As soon as Cari understood my daughter, things went much more smoothly.

Books like Calpurnia Tate and Green Glass Sea will hopefully help my daughter understand herself.

Posted in Avant Parenting, Education.

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Little-c creativity in our lives

I recently attended a talk by psychologist Susan Daniels, who lectures and writes about creativity. Her talk was based on a book she’d read, assigned to her college students, and followed herself. (The book, which she highly recommends, is The Creativity Cure by Carrie and Alton Barron. Susan’s book is Raising Creative Kids and I reviewed it here.)

Susan’s talk was about the importance of “everyday creativity” for everyone. Although some of us are involved in creative work for pay, and others of us think of ourselves as “not creative,” we all benefit from using our hands and bodies to do what’s called “little-c creativity.” This is the sort of creativity involved in improvising a new dish while cooking, playing a song on the piano, or making up a game with our kids. It’s pretty humble stuff—not meant to impress anyone else, done for enjoyment and only sometimes with a product that we use or enjoy.

Needle felting

This is a needle-felted landscape (with stormy sky) that I did at a recent homeschool retreat. It was just a simple project in a medium I’d never tried before (and won’t do often because of my propensity for carpal tunnel syndrome!), but it was extremely rewarding for me.

Susan suggests that we can all improve our well-being by not only pursuing little-c creativity, but incorporating it into our lives with intention. In her own life, despite her busy life as a psychologist, teacher, and lecturer, she intentionally returned to painting, which she had enjoyed when she was younger. This is not a career move for her. Although her photos showed that the results of her endeavor could certainly be called successful art, she’s not suggesting that we all drop our day jobs and become professional artists.

Instead, she’s suggesting that we can improve our lives by taking on tasks that we do with our hands only for the pleasure of doing them.

Susan’s talk reminded me of a huge change that I underwent when I started homeschooling. Although I’d done many projects at home with my children when they were little, it wasn’t until we were homeschooling that I initiated and took part in art projects that fed my own creativity as well as my children’s. My daughter loves videos by Vi Hart—Vi’s mathematical approach to art really inspires her. So for a while my kids and I were making scribble drawings and binary trees. Inspired by that, I bought Geometric Graphics, a wonderful book from Key Curriculum Press about mathematically based art, and we completed many projects in that book.

We also had more time for intentional art projects such as collaging gifts, decorating household items to send to their grandmother, making videos based on what they were learning (or just sheer silliness), and lots of creative cooking. We went to workshops run by other homeschoolers and did weaving, painting, sculpting, and other handwork that we would probably never have attempted on our own.

All the while I was thinking that these activities were for the children, but it often occurred to me that I enjoyed them even more. It’s not uncommon when homeschoolers get together to do a project with a group of younger children that the children finish their projects quickly and run off to play, while the moms sit for much longer, chatting together but also applying a lot more effort to their artwork than is necessary to model creative play to children. Clearly, we all felt the joy of incorporating that little-c creativity into our lives.

It occurs to me that this is one part of my life that has changed pretty dramatically for two reasons. One is that my younger and more artistically hands-on child has gone off to school. Although we still do projects together, our output is nowhere near what it was before. The other is that my older child, never strongly attracted to the physical arts, got to the age that he largely pursues his own creative projects, which are mostly independent of me and usually done on computers.

I was ready to feel bad about this as I sat listening to Susan’s talk, but then as I thought back on my year, I realized that after an initial slump of little-c creative activity, I have since started pursuing more independent activities. (Since my work is creative I pretty much daily partake in Big-C creativity, but not in the hands-on, personally fulfilling creative projects that Susan was encouraging.) This year, with some time freed up from homeschooling, I started to play guitar after many years of letting it slide. A friend and I made a list of songs that we started to learn and sing together. After pretty much ignoring what was on our walls and displayed on shelves for years, I have gone on a frenzy of home aesthetic improvement, a little-c creative project if ever I’ve seen one.

I haven’t read The Creativity Cure yet, but based on my own experience I encourage everyone to take a look at their lives and consider whether they are pursuing a healthy amount of little-c creativity on a daily basis. In our professionalized culture, we often feel bad about being an amateur at something that other people are compensated for. Especially in pursuits that can be highly rewarded in our culture, such as popular singing, I often hear people say, “Oh, I’m no good at that so you don’t want to hear me.” Well, heck, people might not want to hear me sing or see my artwork, but I’m going to do it anyway. Susan and my homeschooling role models taught me well that little-c creativity looms large in its ability to make life enjoyable and fulfilling.

Posted in Arts and Music, Avant Parenting, Homeschooling, Psychology.

Parenting and creativity

When I was younger, I realized I had no interest in anything that wasn’t creative, and this could be a significant handicap. So if I wanted to learn how to do something, I would assign myself a task. For example, instead of using tutorials and classes to learn about graphic design software, I just started working for my brother and learned on the job.

Once I had kids, I noticed that they behaved similarly. They didn’t want to learn about anything—they wanted to dip their hands in and do things. Just like me, they tend to back into tasks. While other kids learned phonics, my kids refused to sound out words until one day they could read…pretty much anything. When my daughter was homeschooling, it was a duel to the death if I tried to teach her something. But then she’d come up with an idea for a project or a game, and teach herself more than I ever could have in the same amount of time.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Educators often use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a model for how people learn. However, Bloom put “creating” way at the top of the pyramid, which implies to many teachers that it is something to be put off until the other learning is taken care of. The problem is, creative people just don’t learn this way. They need to jump into creation first.

I’m not going to take a stand on nature vs. nurture here (and tend to agree with those who say that it’s not a valid classification of how people learn, anyway). But researchers are finding that when they watch people’s brains work, they see marked differences between people who do “creative” work and people whose work is purely technical or organizational. All of these people may have similar brainpower, but use their brains differently.

One researcher, Nancy Andreasen, studied creative writers and is now doing a wider study of people who are high achievers in creative fields (not only the arts but also science and math).

“For years, I had been asking myself what might be special or unique about the brains of the workshop writers I had studied,” she writes in ‘Secrets of the Creative Brain.’ “In my own version of a eureka moment, the answer finally came to me: creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see.”

When I got to this text I stopped and immediately highlighted it. It encapsulates both the joys and frustrations of parenting highly creative children. You parents know who you are: other kids use toy cars to play, well, toy cars. Your kids put their toy cars in a pot and cooked them into “drive soup” on their toy stove. Other kids largely accept that we never go up the slide backwards; your kids asked why and then argued a thousand reasons why the rule was wrong and unfair. Other kids make messes; “mess” is a state of being for your kid.

Last year I went to a talk about how to nurture creativity in children, but the question that pertained to my parenting life was quite the opposite: Is it OK if sometimes I really really want to stop the unbridled creativity that is driving me nuts? Can’t a child just set the darn table without building a case worthy of the Supreme Court for why it’s actually not her job?

The answer I came to is something like “yes” and also like “no.” Every time we nurture that independence of thought and randomness of connection that our young children show, we are supporting brains that will one day be able to apply novel approaches to artistic, engineering, and scientific endeavors. On the other hand, one of the jobs of parents is to help our kids become functional adults. Isn’t it part of good parenting to help a child learn where his “off” switch is? Our kids’ future coworkers and spouses will thank us.

Finding the balance between nurturing that little creative mind and shutting off the seemingly nonstop onslaught of free association is something I’ve always struggled with. My own creative brain definitely needs quiet and contemplation, something I had in excess before I had children. Now, sometimes I admit that I just have to say “please. stop. talking. please. stop. now!” to one or other of my kids. At the same time that I know I’m squashing their brains’ healthy bursts of association and originality, I also know that I need to stay sane.

I guess like every issue we face as parents, there’s no single right answer. I hope that I keep the balance tipped toward the nurturing of creativity, but I also know that sometimes the appropriate answer to a whiny “whyyyyyyyyyyyy do IIIIIII have to set the table?” is simply, “Because I said so.”


Posted in Avant Parenting, Education, Psychology.

Book Review: Legendary Learning: The Famous Homeschoolers’ Guide to Self-Directed Excellence

Legendary Learning: The Famous Homeschoolers’ Guide to Self-Directed Excellence
Jamie McMillin
Rivers and Years Publishing, 2012

Great summer reading for homeschooling parents!

Last August, I attended the first ever (that I know about!) online homeschooling conference through The Learning Revolution Project. One of the talks I attended was by homeschooler and author Jamie McMillin, who had researched the lives of famous homeschoolers. I requested a copy of her book and recently unearthed it on my desk. Oh yeah, I said I’d review that book. Ah, the life of an overly busy writer/mother/homeschooler.

legendarylearningI am glad, however, that I finally got around to reading this wonderful book. McMillin shows fine writing skills, impressive research, and insightful analysis of how we homeschoolers can learn by example.

One of the first questions she addresses is one very important to me: why does she choose “famous” homeschoolers rather than people who exhibited other kinds of success? Her justification is probably the best one could offer: we don’t know much about other homeschoolers. McMillin’s homeschoolers—Pearl Buck, Louis Armstrong, Thomas Edison, Frederick Douglass, Andrew Carnegie…—were the subjects of multiple biographies and left detailed paper trails for us to consider. So although she does focus on famous people rather than on the decidedly more real tapestry of people who simply led successful and productive lives, she does a great job framing how she chose her subjects and what she believes we can learn from them.

The book is arranged thematically, with chapters addressing various aspects of life and learning illuminated by examples of famous homeschoolers. McMillin also intersperses small glimpses of her own homeschooling life, a welcome connection to the modern world without making the book too personal. She then offers her own analysis of what successful homeschoolers do well, and how it translates both to day-to-day homeschooling decisions as well as the future success of the homeschooled child.

The subjects McMillin addresses range widely, with colorful and evocative chapter titles to introduce them: That Divine Spark, Wild Intelligence, Go Ahead—Be a Rebel, Passion into Possibility, Attitude is Everything, Clear Grit. For each subject, McMillin first analyzes the concept and how it played out in at least one famous homeschooler’s life. Then she considers how the principles analyzed could relate to homeschooling and offers us real-life examples. She ends each chapter with a bullet list of “take-aways” from the preceding discussion.

I’m not at the point in my homeschooling life where I am looking for nuts & bolts advice, though I am guessing readers in that stage will find this book useful in many ways. What I really love about the book, however, is how it shows that although the modern homeschooling movement is relatively new, and the methods we are employing can sometimes seem radical and lacking in foundation, really our quest is not a new one. McMillin’s famous homeschoolers all achieved success not because they followed the rules that most modern Americans take for granted—stay in school, follow the rules, get good grades, be a high achiever. They achieved success because they followed their passions, didn’t listen to naysayers, were diligent, and knew that they had something to offer the world.

As McMillin’s book makes very clear, that sounds a lot like the contemporary homeschooling movement. And after I read this book, I felt all the more equipped to advocate for our unusual educational choice.

This post is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop—click here to read other great blogs about summer reading.

This month, we focus on Summer Reading. Summer gives many of us extra opportunities for reading… the fiction we love but don’t usually have time for, the non-fiction that we wish we had time to study during the year, or the boundless free time to read on the beach, at the cabin, or on the boat… or in your own living room. Don’t miss the special reading (and Lego!) nook, or the struggle some kids have with reading. Summer Reading is more than just a school reading list.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

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Focus on the positive

I’ve been thinking lately about one lesson I learned through parenting a child with behavioral and learning differences. When you parent a child who falls somewhere within that wide field we call “typical,” lots of traditional parenting methods with incentives and consequences might work well enough. But it’s not until we have a child who falls far from the center of the field that we might discover the value of parenting—and teaching—to the positive.

I was most recently reminded of this when my daughter spent a week at her favorite summer camp, Santa Cruz Soccer Camp. The first time I brought her to camp, I was very nervous. I explained that there were various behavioral challenges and that I was willing to stay and help. Coach Bill, without hesitation, asked if she was liable to run off.

1406Soccer1“Well, no,” I answered. That was one challenge she’d never presented me with!

“Fine, then,” he said. “We can handle anything else. Go get some time for yourself.”

And that was the end of the idea that I might have to stay and supervise her at soccer camp. The reason Bill was so sure of his camp’s ability to handle my child was simply that they don’t focus on the problems—they focus on success. They call their approach “learning through enjoyment,” but it’s a variation on lots of approaches with different names that stem from one simple idea: kids learn when they enjoy something and are successful at it, not when they are set up to fail and are punished. Lots of kids have learned deep lessons from soccer, drama, writing, and science—I am willing to bet that few have learned from detention.

Kids learn when they feel a reason for learning: they’re having fun, they’re benefiting personally from what they’re doing, or even when they see that someone else is benefiting from what they’re doing. Kids do learn from failure, but only when it’s in the context of a challenge that makes sense to them. Kids don’t learn when they’re scared—or rather, they don’t learn the lesson we think they’ve learned. A student who is afraid of failing history doesn’t learn history because he’s afraid, but he may well learn how to search for plagiarized history papers online. A child who is afraid her parent will punish her if she’s rude doesn’t learn the value of being polite—she learns how to avoid punishment.

Now that my daughter is eleven, one of the things I’m looking forward to in the near future is leadership training at her soccer camp. This year when Bill asked all the coaches who had been through leadership training to step forward, all but one did (and the one who didn’t just simply didn’t grow up in Santa Cruz!). These wonderful people who spend their summers teaching soccer and success to kids are now adults or almost adults, and many of them started in this very camp when they were five or six. Leadership taught them the value of success, not just for themselves but the value of helping others achieve success.

I looked at a number of potential schools for my daughter to attend next year, and one thing that struck me now that I have this awareness of the value of success is how the staff view their jobs. At one school I visited, the staff—from principal on down—talked somewhat like jailers. They focused on the negative aspects of young teens, talked about all the problems that our kids would face, and warned us that our sweet children were about to turn into sullen, uncommunicative teens.

Guess where my daughter is not going?

Now that she’s a tween, she’s gotten past being a “troublemaker” in the classroom. I don’t expect her to have disciplinary problems, so why would I care how the staff treats these problems? The reason is that how we view the people we work with—whether they’re preschoolers or high schoolers—will affect their achievements. Schools with cultures that focus on success will find that they have fewer problems to begin with. They will find that when you focus on students’ positive qualities, those positive qualities will shine brighter. The students’ problems—their negative qualities—will not disappear, but they won’t be always in the spotlight.

Of course, no approach is 100% successful, so sure, you’ll be able to show me students who didn’t succeed in spite of a focus on the positive. But I’ve seen it with so many children—and the people at soccer camp can vouch for the approach with even more authority. Focusing on a student’s strengths and making sure they’re having fun while they’re working hard is a time-tested recipe for success.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I sure do wish there were some way to have summer camp all year round!

Posted in Avant Parenting, Education, Psychology.

My essential children’s library

School is out this week, and I am thinking toward next week: annual spring cleaning. Our spring cleaning usually happens in the summer and is largely a culling of clothing the kids have outgrown, homeschooling materials we don’t need and will pass on to others, and books.

Yes, my family is part of the rare set of humans who have: a) remodeled their whole upstairs after discussing the need for more bookshelves, and b) bought a house in large part because of the copious bookshelf space in the kitchen.

Despite our feeling that you can never have too many books, when you have kids who love to read, you can have too many books. Books they hated and will never read again, books they bought at their school book fair (hosted by a not-to-be-mentioned publisher of generally cheap and disposable literature), books someone gave them that they will never be interested in.

But there are some books that will stay on our shelves no matter what. I decided to write up a list of these books, the ones I brought with me from childhood as well as the ones we’ve discovered since. My personal list of desert island children’s literature, so to speak.

Personally, I love the old Alice woodcuts and wouldn’t buy a book with modern illustrations!

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

I will admit, this book will always come first for me. I read this book over and over as a child and as a teen. There is nothing else like it in terms of the effect the tale had on our culture, the inventiveness of the language, and the incredible imagination married with observations of the real world.

Harry Potter by J.K.Rowling

This list was inspired a few minutes ago by my standing in front of my son’s bookshelves, musing about how worn out his copies are. He and his sister have read these books to shreds. And the most wonderful thing about these books is that they squeaked in right before the age of i-devices changed children forever. They are perhaps our last, innocent look at childhood before the iPad, the child without Google, the child who has to invent his own games and solve his own problems.

The New Way Things Work by David MacAulay

I wasn’t familiar with MacAulay before a friend bought the original version of this book for my son. This is the book that answers questions about the stuff we use every day in depth and with humor. Really, you could buy any of MacAulay’s books—his books Castle, City, Cathedral, The Way We Workand many others do the same for more specific subjects. When I was a child we had the Time/Life series of books about the world, and this is like a modern take on those (which don’t make my list because, alas, our kids do have Google and Time/Life seems so quaint now).

The collected works of Dr. Seuss

Go ahead, splurge and get them all. Dr. Seuss was born when Theodor Geisel was issued the challenge of writing a children’s book with only the most common 50 words that a first-grader can read. He wrote The Cat in the Hat. Most of us would have written Dick and Jane Do Something Really Boring! Seuss’s books are so amazing because with so little he creates drama, tension, and irony, something often lacking in children’s early readers. Throw away the Bob books—read Seuss over and over!

The lines between good and bad, dark and light, friend and wild beast are all blurred in Sendak’s work.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Like Seuss, Sendak never worried about corrupting young minds—he knew that young minds love the dark and mysterious parts of life. Like Seuss and MacAulay, the illustrations are also a huge part of the story. Can you imagine someone issuing Where the Wild Things Are with new illustrations? How could any artist improve on Sendak’s dark and silly, scary and cute world?

Books about my part of the world

This, of course, would change with each reader’s location. I think having books set in and about the environment your children are growing up in is a wonderful part of the reading life. When I was a child, I don’t remember a single book covering anything remotely like the place I grew up in. But since I have been raising my children on California’s Central Coast, we have collected both fiction and nonfiction about our area. If you’re a local here, check out my book list of children’s books set in our area. We also have multiple books on redwood forests, a local mushroom guide, several books about the ecology of our seashore, and Tom Killion’s wonderful woodcuts.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S.Lewis

I found it fascinating to reread these books as an adult once my kids were ready for them. I had such intense, vivid recollections from the books and had read them multiple times as a child. As adults, both my husband and I found them disappointing, hardly the brilliant tales we remembered. But our children adored them. Just like me, my daughter went through a period where she read and reread them. I guess just as the children can’t go to Narnia once they were grown up, my grown-up self just can’t access the magic anymore. But they clearly still speak to kids.

Little House on the Prairie and sequels by Laura Ingalls Wilder

My adult enjoyment of these books is tempered by what I have read about Wilder and her manipulative daughter. But ignore all that—the Little House series, with all of its distortions and rose-colored glasses, is a deeply important part of American culture. I think all children should read these books, but somehow they seem to be most important to girls of a certain age. I was sure, when I was a girl, that I’d been born into the wrong time. I longed to get up with Laura on icy mornings, stoking up the fire and trudging to the well. Laura has been a trusted friend to American children for so many generations because her stories are so appealing, and so much a part of the history of this country.

My First series by DK

Encyclopedias for the toddler set—these books are wonderful to look at with small children. They are apparently not publishing the one my son loved the most. Simply called My First Word Book, it featured pictures of most of the things that a small child might encounter in daily life, arranged by category. We referred to this book as “the datz book” because whenever he saw something he liked, he would point at it and say “datz!” He did a lot of pointing with these books.

If you’d like to see other book lists I’ve written, click here!

This post is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop—click here to read other great blogs about summer reading.

This month, we focus on Summer Reading. Summer gives many of us extra opportunities for reading… the fiction we love but don’t usually have time for, the non-fiction that we wish we had time to study during the year, or the boundless free time to read on the beach, at the cabin, or on the boat… or in your own living room. Don’t miss the special reading (and Lego!) nook, or the struggle some kids have with reading. Summer Reading is more than just a school reading list.

Posted in Avant Parenting.

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