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My Aha! Moment

A while back I was contacted by the Aha Moment crew about taking part once they got to Santa Cruz. I had never heard of them, so of course my first instinct was that this was some new kind of phishing invented to fool Internet-savvy homeschooling moms. It turned out it wasn’t—it’s a real thing and a real job. This really nice group of young people travel the country in a trailer tricked out as a TV studio, interviewing locals at each stop and putting their interviews up on the Web.

I had two reactions to the idea of taking part:

1) I don’t really have “aha moments,” so it wouldn’t be authentic

2) Why would I bother?

After watching videos from the first location that popped up, I decided to watch videos from San Francisco. That’s what sold me. I realize that this is just another way for Mutual of Omaha to try to make us like them, but it’s insidiously wonderful in a weird little way. As soon as I switched to San Francisco—though the trailer, the lighting, and the editing were the same—it was a whole new experience. Those were San Franciscans I saw on the screen. It was so cool to see my former city of residence, the place that I always wanted to live until I lived there, and then always wanted to go back to when I could, represented in this funny little modern sociological experiment.

It felt cool. I decided to do it.

Then I had to find my “aha.” As I said, I don’t really think that way. But once I did, what I wanted to talk about became obvious.

I’m not saying you should go watch me, but I will say that this is a fun and curiously interesting portrait of America that those fuddy duddy insurance guys are bankrolling. I got very little time to chat with the crew, but I could see why they enjoyed their jobs so much.

Choose a city and watch! It’s lovely in a weird, millennial sort of way.

And, OK, you can watch mine here:

Posted in Films, Homeschooling, Parenting, Writing.

Good people, bad people, and the rest of us

The other day when we were talking to our kids about interacting with other people online, we came up against a problem that we face over and over as parents:

Concern #1: We don’t think it’s healthy for our kids to view the world as some horrible scary place they should be afraid of interacting with.

Concern #2: On the other hand, horrible scary things happen out there every day, and we want our children to have basic tools to deal with things that might come their way.

How you balance those concerns pretty much sums up your view of what your role as a parent is.

I tend to spend a lot of time standing in the middle of the seesaw, trying to keep it level. I did let my kids walk around the neighborhood alone when they were little. I didn’t prime them with horrible stories about mean people and what they will do to them. I did tell them that it’s OK to question the motives of adults they come into contact with.

Mean people R us, some of the time

A challenge for parents is to develop a consistent approach to how we deal with danger in the world, especially potentially dangerous people. What I came up with translates pretty well to the online world as well:

Premise #1: There is a small number of really terrible people in this world who want to hurt others.

Premise #2: There is a small number of really saintly people who will never hurt anyone or anything.

Premise #3: The rest of us just do our best with what life throws us.

I’ve never been terribly concerned about Premise #1, to tell you the truth. If you want your children not to be hurt by an adult, you’d do well to choose a partner who won’t hurt them because that’s who’s most likely to do it. If there are other people in your life who might hurt your children, do your best to change your life so that you don’t interact with those people.

Stranger-on-stranger violence is rare enough; stranger-adult-on-child violence is really quite rare. It’s also generally not possible to predict, so you can’t live your life assuming that everyone is out to get you.

Since you can’t reliably identify the saints amongst us, Premise #3 is where things get hairy. The fact is, sometimes we human beings don’t behave as well as we should. One of the situations in which we behave less well than normal is when we feel anonymous. Those who live in tourist towns, like me, can tell you without hesitation that people are less polite and leave more garbage lying around when they are at outside of their own community.

Our online lives have offered all of us a certain measure of anonymity and distance from the people we interact with. Even real humans that we see in the real world gain a certain amount of psychological distance online. People put things in email they’d never say to someone’s face. Facebook generates mini-scandals and lots of hurt feelings every day.

Do your best, keep trying to do better

So when we’re talking to our kids about taking care of themselves—in the “real” world or online—we’re more concerned about that huge number of people who are simply doing their best. We’re concerned whether our children are conscious of their own behavior and how it might affect others. And we’re concerned that another child that they met online may not have the same guidance from the adults in his or her real life.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible that the child they met online is actually a 34-year-old serial child kidnapper. It’s just that when I worry about which values to impart to my children, I put fear of someone running a red light and hitting them in a crosswalk way ahead of any of the more headline-worthy ways to get hurt in this world. It’s hard to resist the headlines (not to mention the Amber Alerts shining above the highways) and just plow forward with a hope that our kids will do OK for themselves in the world.

I think that open communication is the best way to do that. Each of us has to make a decision about where on the seesaw we want to stand, and then decide to be OK with that decision, no matter what happens.




Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

Tagged with , , .

Talking about Internet safety

Tonight my husband and I initiated a discussion after dinner that neither of our children wanted to take part in. The topic was how people might take advantage of you or hurt you online.

The kids got a little uncomfortable, to say the least.

These days, teaching our kids to watch all directions when they're online is as important as teaching them to cross a street safely.

These days, teaching our kids to watch all directions when they’re online is as important as teaching them to cross a street safely.

Our kids start with a pretty serious disadvantage in the “you stupid old fogies don’t know what you’re talking about” department. As I pointed out to them, I got flamed on the Internet before it was called the Internet. Their father was amongst the first Americans to visit the World Wide Web.

We’re not newbies. We’re not teetotalers warning their kids against the danger of intoxication.

This is such an important conversation. The world that our kids are growing up in bears so little resemblance to the world we grew up in, it’s pretty much unprecedented. The only analogous situation I can think of is parents who grew up in peacetime raising kids in a war zone.

Everything bad that could happen to us when we were kids had to happen in the “real” world. This other world didn’t exist yet. The little pieces of it that did exist, like chat rooms that users dialed into on their modems, relate to the Web like BB guns to today’s automatic weapons.

This conversation wasn’t out of the blue. I think the only thing that responsible parents can do these days is to keep bringing up this topic, to keep it fresh in kids’ minds, and to keep all the avenues of discussion open at all times.

It makes kids uncomfortable, especially teens. Our twelve-year-old was rather annoyed that her little transgression had sparked this conversation again. Our sixteen-year-old straight-out announced that he didn’t need to talk about it and attempted to walk out.

Kids not only spend time online, much of their sense of self is not centered on their online interactions.

Teens live much of their lives in a digital world these days. And teens are built to wear their feelings very close to the surface of their skin. They feel deeply, which is great. Their first instinct is often to push away adults who make them feel deeply, which is not so great.

But we kept talking. We worked past the denials, the jokes, the sarcasm, the put-downs, and the brush-offs that kept coming our way. Because this topic is important, perhaps more important (statistically speaking) than talking about stranger abduction. Perhaps not quite as important as teaching your children to look both ways before they cross a street, but verging on that level of importance.

It’s easy for us to think, “my kid would never be so naive.” But let’s face it, we all make mistakes. As I explained to my children, I personally have made mistakes online that have led to hurt feelings and worse in my real life. It’s a real topic that we all have to face.

In the end, I think our kids heard and understood. But it wasn’t the end. This is an ongoing conversation as they mature and face new situations. I explained to my kids at after a half-century on this earth, I still turn to their dad and others I know for advice and guidance on how to react to situations online.

Lifelong learning isn’t just IRL.



Read my follow-up, Good people, bad people, and the rest of us.

Posted in Education, Parenting.

On manufactured non-controversies

One of the Internet’s less noble qualities is its ability to help people get up-in-arms about things that are non-issues. If you use Facebook or other social media, you’re probably hit with it on a daily basis—forced hyperbole that translates to simple clickbait.

andertoons4419I heard about the so-called sunscreen controversy some years ago when my kids were small. According to people who got their PhDs from Google, the use of sunscreen has not slowed the rise of skin cancer—it has caused a rise in skin cancer. [Read this article to understand the argument and then this article to understand why the argument is based on faulty reasoning, shifty argumentation, and sleight of hand.]

This non-controversy rests on a treasure trove of examples how people misunderstand science, and how people with preformed agendas (e.g. “everything natural is good“) misread scientific data to serve their own purposes.

These non-controversies almost always rest on the same set of fallacies, including:

Playing on your fears

We live in a pretty scary world, I’ll admit. A few hundred years ago, most people lived in villages and only knew what was happening nearby. Now, when a non-custodial dad grabs his child in Sacramento, we read about it in lights over the highway across the state. In our villages, we ate what we grew, wore clothing we made, and lived in houses we built. Now we are all depending on strangers around the world to care for our health and well-being. We trust a factory worker in Vietnam not to put contaminated food into our frozen meals. We trust a medical technician in Israel to formulate our kids’ inhalers correctly. We trust a flooring company that sources materials from China not to allow hazardous chemicals that will poison us while we sleep.

This is all pretty scary, and non-controversies play on those fears.

Vilifying science and scientists

When did it happen that the scientist went from pathetic geek to evil genius baby killer? People in general have never trusted science that much, but it’s only been recently that our culture has been placing evil intent at the heart of science. We’re told that “scientists who speak out” feel threatened. We’re told that the reason you haven’t heard about this life-saving idea is that corporations and the scientists they employ are out to sell things that they know are killing us.

The fact is that scientists argue with each other all the time—it’s at the heart of what they do—so scientists disagreeing on any issue is hardly news. And yes, of course scientists have biases and sometimes the ideas that end up being proven to be correct are ignored for some time. However, the aim of scientists is certainly not to silence dissent and make us all sicker. Arguments that rest on that premise are false from the get-go.

Cherry-picking science

One of the most maddening things about science is that it’s hardly ever conclusive. When it comes to something as complex as the healthy functioning of the human body, science may never be able to be conclusive enough to convince a jury of uneducated citizens. So when an article trying to fan the flames of a non-controversy cites science, it does so with a careful process of ignoring the subtleties of scientific research.

No single study proves a hypothesis—scientists pretty much agree on this. But they also agree that science advances by following the advance of knowledge, not by ignoring what doesn’t fit your agenda. Looking at the history of scientific research, you can find studies that validate pretty much any idea—and then you can find the avalanche of studies that followed showing that the preceding study was flawed or inconclusive. Cherry-picking allows disingenuous Internet fakers to grab your attention without requiring them to face the subtler reality of conflicting scientific data.

Confusing correlation and causation

This is probably the most common confusion that non-controversy articles play on. For a good laugh, look at a few of the charts at Spurious Correlations. My favorite is how “murders by steam, hot vapors, and hot objects” correlates well with the age of the reigning Miss America.

So in the sunscreen non-controversy, a big deal is made of rising skin cancer rates that correlate with rising sunscreen use. It seems so tempting to come to the obvious conclusion that sunscreen use is causing cancer, but scientists who have attempted to prove that relationship simply haven’t been able to do it. This is not to say that no relationship exists, but rather that so far no one has been able to prove it. For some people, that lack of certainty is maddening. It leads them to prefer manufactured non-controversies because they are so simple and direct.

Blinding us with numbers, facts, and statistics

She blinded me with science!” the scientist exclaims in Thomas Dolby’s song. And that’s what these non-controversies attempt to do. They cite fact after fact, number after number, name after name, and they seem so believable. But a preponderance of numbers doesn’t create fact; it simply creates confusion in the minds of people who aren’t trained to understand the numbers. And confusion leads to fear, which leads to… see above.

Why do people assign evil intent to scientists? I think it’s because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is—and what its limits are.

There are people who are trained to understand all the numbers, facts, and statistics, and they’re called scientists. And yes, scientists are human, all of them have biases, and some of them even have agendas. But who should we trust: someone who has dedicated his/her life to learning, investigation, and improving the human condition, or someone who has dedicated his/her life to fanning the flames of non-controversies in order to get more clicks?

I’ll trust the scientists.

What science “knows” will always be flawed and incomplete, and it will always be subject to bias and preconceived notions, but a skeptical trust in science is an improvement over living in a village that tries to solve its epidemic of bubonic plague by drowning all the cats.

Getting through this complex modern life we’ve been born into involves a lot of trust that we can’t avoid. The big question is how you’re going to make informed decisions about all the details that face us daily. Listening to the manufacturers of non-controversies might be appealing, but it’s not going to make you any healthier or safer.

Posted in Culture, Health.

Tagged with .

A day that I failed

Tonight, I want you to know this.

Tonight, I am a complete failure as a parent.

Nothing has gone right today. Well, OK, I did get my teenager away from his screen by luring him to our local “gourmet gas station” for a lychee-flavored soft drink.

This was my self-portrait of despair from when I was in my 20's. Did I really think I understood despair then? Amazingly, I did.

This is a self-portrait of despair from when I was in my 20’s. Did I really think I understood despair then? Amazingly, I did. By the way, I loved that black shiki cushion in this photo. We had to get rid of it because our children would drag it out, set it up, and go crazy. Really. It was like the cushion was possessed with demons that entered our children and turned them into crazed munchkins. Finally, we gave it away to Goodwill, and they had to find other ways to inspire themselves to pinnacles of bad behavior.

But I’ll admit that’s not really a success, because I paid for less screen time with sugar wrapped in an exotic, overpriced bottle.

Otherwise, I have failed to do pretty much everything I set out to do:

  • One child shrugs and says “OK” as an answer to pretty much any question I ask
  • The other yells at me every single time I ask him to do the most minor of tasks
  • I try collaborative problem-solving and am told that I am a hyper-controlling maniac
  • I try to honor a child’s wishes and find out that she never, ever wished such a thing and how could I think she would?

Before I had kids, my failures were my own. Yes, it’s true that I was failing because it was all my parents’ fault, but since I’d been out of their house since I was seventeen, that excuse had gotten old.

No, it’s true, before I had children I failed, but I only failed myself.

Now I fail two precious, potential-filled human beings every single day.

I fail to remember what I learned about parenting from Youtube, Facebook, Upworthy, and even TED. Or maybe I remember it, but my very real children are somehow much more complex than the children in those uplifting stories.

Remember the first time you read that you should offer your toddler two choices, one of which was clearly inferior? First time you read that, you thought, Wow, that’s brilliant! And maybe you even put it into practice and it worked!

Once or twice.

Then one day you said to your child, “We are supposed to meet Danny in the park. Do you want to put your shoes on now so we can go to the park, or do you want to sit here with me being bored?”

And your child looked at you with those innocent eyes and said, “I’m not bored, Mommy. It’s just I don’t want to wear my shoes. So it’s OK if we just sit here.”

And he did.

Or perhaps your child said, “I don’t want either of those things. I want to throw a big, fat tantrum and ruin your chances of going to the park so you can sit and talk to the three other people on the planet who don’t think you’re going insane (aka other moms you know).”

In any case, the two questions thing, which you had been promised was fool-proof, had lasted all of two days in your house.

How about 1-2-3? Or was it 3-2-1? It’s hard to remember. You saw a video in which a parenting expert promised you that counting would bring your children into compliance. So you tried it!

And it worked!

“Git yer darn shoes on! 1—2—3!”

That kid was pulling on those shoes like you were holding a flaming torch to her bottom.

Next time you try counting? Doesn’t work. Your kid misses park day and forgets about it as soon as she realizes she can pull out the black shiki cushion, set it up as a fort, and launch spitballs at her brother.

You miss park day and miss the only opportunity you had that week to talk to other people who understand that in our world, counting is irrelevant (aka other moms).

On days like today, all parenting advice is irrelevant.

Except for this advice:

We’re doing the hardest job in the world. And until your kids are grown up and have kids of their own, it’s thankless, too. (Unless you are successful at getting your children to be polite with you, another thing I have largely failed at.)

So be aware that some days will be like this. You’ll fail at everything. You’ll end up in your office, typing madly into your blog software, hoping someone will hear your silent scream in the dark.

Why did I do this? Why didn’t I become one of the Childless by Choice? What can I do to rekindle my faith in myself as a parent?

And the only advice I can give is the advice I’m giving myself right now:

This, like all things in parenting, will pass. Your children will thrive (probably), and they will become who they will become, most definitely.

Perhaps with your help, perhaps in spite of your help, they will become functional adults.

One day, your child-in-law will sit at your kitchen table with your grandchild playing at his or her feet, and ask entreatingly, “How did you do it? You were such a great mom!”

And you’ll remember this day, and you’ll remember this advice, you’ll sigh, and you’ll say, “Well, there were days that I felt like I failed.”

But you kept going.

And you did.

Posted in Parenting.

Have Fun… and Be Safe… at the Beach this Summer

The most recent newsletter from Santa Cruz Parent contained some great advice about fun and safety for families at the beach. However, I noticed that it lacked one warning that I think is particularly pertinent to Santa Cruz: Don’t let your kids dig deep holes in the sand! I wrote the following article for Growing Up in Santa Cruz the summer after one child was killed and another was seriously injured after a sand cave collapse. These children’s parents were beach natives and caring people, yet they didn’t realize the risk.


My kids love going boogie boarding at the beach.

My kids love going boogie boarding at the beach.

For Santa Cruz families, the beach is our free amusement park. As soon as school gets out, families head to the beach for long, lazy, fun days.

Few parents will be able to visit Natural Bridges Beach this summer, however, without the accompanying sadness at last year’s tragedy: one child died and one was seriously injured when a sand cave fell on them. As a community, the good that we can make of such a tragedy is to be more aware of how we can keep our kids safe, while still having fun in our natural playground.

Experts recommend the following precautions:

1) Teach your kids about water.
As soon as they are old enough to understand danger, children should learn about the dangers of water and also learn to swim. Recommendations vary for the age when kids should learn, but everyone agrees that a child playing over his ankles in beach water should be able to float for at least a minute.

2) Teach your kids about the beach.
Beach water is a whole different beast than pool water. Kids should know that sometimes the water is not safe for swimming. You can check our local water quality website before you go.
Kids need to be educated about wave behavior. Rip currents are common at our beaches and kids who can swim should know to swim parallel to the beach if they feel themselves being pulled out to sea. Kids should also understand the behavior of sleeper waves. According to, “Without warning, huge “sleeper” waves sometimes hit the shore. These giants crash much farther up the beach than normal waves. They can knock down both children and adults, and drag them into deep water.”
Our local cliffs and bluffs are made of sandstone, a highly unstable surface. Teach your kids to pay attention to the warning signs. Noting the young adults who are often out on the cliffs can serve as a way to talk about risky beach behavior. Wildlife on the beach should be looked at and enjoyed, but never touched or bothered. Report injured wildlife on our beaches to the State Park Service.

3) Be a responsible adult.
Sometimes it’s a pain to enforce safety rules. For example, kids love the warm, stagnant water caught at slow-moving creek entrances. These bodies of water are permanently posted for unsafe bacterial levels, and parents need to be vigilant.
All kids, even those with more melanin in their skin, need to wear sunscreen at the beach. According to, “Research has shown that sun exposure prior to the age of 18 significantly increases the risk of developing skin cancer later in life, including the potentially fatal melanoma.”
Beaches with smaller waves and lifeguards are safer for kids. Choose the beach based on their needs. And if they are going in deeper water with a body board, even if they can swim, they should have a tether. Kids (and adults) can drown when they swim out to retrieve a board that slipped out from under them.

4) Sand caves are not safe.
Finally, it’s nearly universal in kid world that digging in sand and going in caves is endlessly fun. But parents need to be aware that on average, three people, mostly kids, are killed on beaches each year by sand cave-ins, often from lying down in shallow holes and aspirating falling sand. No child should be allowed to dig a large hole deeper than a foot, and children should be told never to lie down, even in shallow holes.
It can be uncomfortable, but parents can help other parents keep their kids safe. Many of the visitors to our beaches are newbies – we can help them by pointing out unsafe behavior when we see it. If the problem continues, you can contact a lifeguard or the ranger on duty at each beach’s parking area.

Enjoy a safe, happy summer!


Posted in Parenting.

“Inside Out,” a tour of modern parenting

One of the benefits of parenting now rather than in previous times is how much more we know about human brains and how they work. Before the 21st century, advice to parents and teachers was pretty much based on inference—”we see that lots of people who have done xyz have had good results, so you should do it, too.”

These days, parents are benefiting from—and in some cases, freaking out because of—a huge influx of hard data about how brains work. So it’s not surprising that Pixar has come out with a movie that’s not only for kids, but for us adults who are worrying about how our parenting is affecting our children’s brains. [Read an interview with the director in which he talks about how his 11-year-old daughter inspired the film.]

The freak-out at the dinner table. We’ve been there!

A movie for kids and adults

“Inside Out” is a truly brilliant film in several respects. The aspect most important to me as an adult is that it’s a kids’ movie that adults can not only enjoy with the kids, but enjoy separately from the kids. As we sat in the theater, I noticed a striking pattern of laughter: The kids were laughing at the funny lines, the goofiness, and the nutty action sequences.

True, the adults were laughing at those, too. But we were also laughing at the adult level inside jokes (did they really sneak a joke about San Francisco “bears” into a mainstream movie?), the pained and loving relationship between the two parents (oh, ouch, I think we’ve had that actual discussion, dear), and the uncomfortable recognition of feelings from our own childhoods.

True to life

Not all films have to be “real” in the sense of sticking to objective realism. However, any good story is “real” within its own context. Whether the characters are fairies or girls attending a new school, their experiences and especially their reaction to those experiences need to seem “real” in context. We have to believe them.

The temptation with kids’ movies is to make things happen just because kids think they’re funny, or because it was time for some action in the plot, or because the animator always wanted to animate a wild mass of curly, red hair. “Inside Out” never feels like it’s veering off-center; this is a movie that knows what it’s about.

Modeling a healthy parenting style

Did the makers of this film really portray a loving, modern family that lets their 11-year-old daughter [gasp!] walk to school in a new city? Well, yes, they did. I wonder if Pete Docter has read Free-Range Kids

I appreciated that this film featured neither the sappy parent-as-role-model nor the damaging parent-as-natural-adversary tropes that are common in children’s films. These parents are real. They don’t make decisions only for their daughter—they have needs, too. They don’t try to control their daughter or even to completely understand her. They just love her and do their best, which isn’t always quite good enough.

A healthy theory of mind

Let’s face it: this is a cartoon, and the representation of the brains and how they work is cartoonish. But it’s also beautifully constructed both to reflect the state of modern brain research and also a healthy modern view of how to manage our ideas and emotions. In the movie, each person has a “control room” that is run by the emotions happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. But that’s where the brains’ similarities end. Each character in the film has a control room that works differently, depending on the character’s personality and life experiences.

Some of the funniest moments in the film are when we briefly step into the minds of the minor characters and see their control rooms as a metaphor for how they approach the world. Every character, we are reminded, is a person, and has the same emotions as the next. How those emotions behave and interact is what makes each of us unique.

Two thumbs up

I have to admit that I’m generally loathe to go to popular children’s movies. I am deeply grateful when another parent offers to take my child. And now that my youngest is old enough to go on her own, it takes a lot to get me to spend my dollars and my precious two hours on something that will, at best, bore me, and at worst, offend me.

But this is one film I can heartily recommend to parents like me who are done with stupid kid films. I left the theater feeling like I’d actually received more than I paid for, an unusual result of watching a hit summer movie.

Mom’s efficient control room—calm, cool, and collected!

Her daughter’s control room is rather more chaotic.

Dad’s emotions are remembering a great hockey game before they realize that their daughter is having a crisis.

Aside: Interesting how the filmmakers chose to portray Mom’s emotions as all women, Dad’s emotions as all men, but Daughter’s emotions as mixed male and female. Intentional? Hm…

Posted in Culture, Films, Parenting, Psychology.

Positive mindset, not mindlessly positive

I visited a friend from the gifted education community recently. She hosted me and my son at her home, and she and I went for a long walk and got to chat non-stop. What a treat! Not a single interruption.

Here I am accepting prizes for a road race I won when I was a teen. I as very Dweckian—I really believed that I could become a top marathoner if I worked hard enough. Unfortunately, soon after this photo was taken my joints declared another plan for my life—they had reached their tolerance for abuse!

Here I am accepting prizes for a road race I won when I was a teen. I was very Dweckian—I really believed that I could become a top marathoner if I worked hard enough. Unfortunately, soon after this photo was taken my joints declared another plan for my life—they had reached their tolerance for abuse!

One of the things we talked about was Carol Dweck’s Mindset research. Dweck is a psychologist who ran experiments to find out whether people’s mindsets influence how well they learn. Probably not surprisingly, she found that people who believe that they can improve tend to learn better than people who believe that their abilities are fixed. She called this a “growth mindset” vs. a “fixed mindset.” (If you want more details, visit her website here.)

I say this isn’t surprising because it’s something parents have been saying for many years: If you go into a task expecting to fail, you probably won’t do as well as you could. But it’s great that Dweck was able to devise experiments that showed this effect in action.

However… the big “however” was what my friend and I discussed. People in general have a tendency to take limited studies and over-apply them. Reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food recently, I was reminded of the time in the 80’s when oat bran was said to be the cure for everything, to the point that a friend of mine would sprinkle it on her Chinese takeout.

Mindset as oat bran

The psychological equivalent of sprinkling oat bran on Chinese takeout is the idea, being adopted by many an educator and plenty of parents these days, that kids can learn anything if they just try hard enough. As soon as you hear someone say that, make sure to put on your Dweckian brakes and remember the limitations of research.

Dweck’s research did not prove that anyone can learn anything if they try hard enough. Her research did suggest that people learn more easily and quickly when they have a positive mindset.

Other research, however, has shown that, in fact, having a mindlessly positive viewpoint is not only not helpful to learning, but can sometimes be detrimental to learning. The New York Times’ “The Trouble with Self-Esteem” offers some details on this.

Why is this important? First of all, it’s important to realize that all of us are born with a physical body that has its limits. When I was young, I wanted to be a marathon runner. That didn’t happen, not because I didn’t try hard enough, but because it turned out that my body isn’t built for marathon running.

The brain is, let’s face it, a piece of meat. We can improve our brains by using them, just as we improve our muscles by using them. But we are all born with limited potential. If we weren’t, we’d be gods. On top of that, some of us are born with brains built for marathons, and others with brains that are happiest taking an evening stroll.

Don’t expect a stroller to win the 100 meter sprint

When you tell children who are working really, really hard on something that challenges the capacity of their brains to the highest that they will succeed if they try hard enough, the message is pretty clear: If you don’t succeed at learning algebra/salsa dancing/Chinese, it’s your fault.

This, of course, is nonsense. Anyone who has raised or worked with gifted children will have plenty of experience in how nonsensical mindless positivity is. There are people in this world who have potential to do things that the rest of us can’t do. If you don’t have a certain kind of brain that “gets” abstract mathematical reasoning, and someone tells you that you can become a leading theoretical physicist if you just try hard enough, they’re lying. Or deluded.

Pushing mindless positivity inhibits learning

  • Children do not learn to have reasonable expectations of themselves. They learn that there’s something wrong with them for having potential in some areas and not much potential in other areas, when in fact that’s the definition of being human.
  • Educators come to believe that it’s not worth challenging gifted learners, because obviously, they are already challenging themselves enough. The message is that all brains are the same; therefore, all education should be the same. Gifted learners end up bored, frustrated, and confused when people think they worked hard on something that came easily to them.
  • Parents teach their kids that everything they do is great, so they don’t have to work to the point of frustration. But working to frustration is the way that most people succeed at what they do. Ask anyone who’s successful at pretty much any enterprise, and they will tell you about the time they “hit the wall” and what it taught them. You only hit the wall if you keep pushing. And you only keep pushing if you believe that you haven’t yet done your best.

So what’s a parent or teacher to do? Dweck says that we should tell kids that they can improve if they work on something, but some kids will clearly be able to do more than others.

Don’t turn Dweck’s research into positivity religion

The answer is one that good sports coaches have known forever. If you’re coaching a typical student team, you’re going to have great players, mediocre players, and let’s face it, really crappy players. Good coaches accept this reality and know that a team is only as good as it can be if all the players try their best.

When I was on my high school track team, there was no nonsense about “you all can be the best runner in the world if you try hard enough.” My coaches were really specific for each runner’s situation. In my case, no matter what race I was running I tended to start out slowly and speed up the longer I ran. My coaches pointed that out and suggested that I needed to push harder in warm-ups so that I was ready to go from the outset.

No one else on my team had that particular pattern, and no one else on my team got that advice.

In academics, we don’t have to tell all kids they can be—or should be—theoretical physicists. But we should tell them that their outlook will affect their performance. And we should tell them that no matter how well they perform at one specific academic task, they’re an important part of the team.

We don’t all have to be stars

Frankly, I don’t care much whether my mechanic is good at theoretical physics, whether my doctor is good at basketball, or whether my child’s music teacher passed high school chemistry.

I do want them to have a positive mindset, so they can strive to be the best they can be at their jobs. But mindless positivity just leads to mediocrity and complacence.

Posted in Education, Parenting, Psychology.

In praise of adult ed

Every Wednesday evening last spring, I presented myself with a challenge.

A friend encouraged me to take a jazz singing class with her at our local community college. I’d been looking for a new musical outlet, so I agreed.

I nearly walked out the first night.

The teacher was a venerable local swing band leader who immediately started calling on students to get up and perform. Accompanied by a piano, a series of cute young divas got up and sang polished songs. I started to feel uncomfortable, knowing that I hadn’t gotten up in front of an audience and sang without a book or a guitar to shield me in a very long time.

One of the benefits of community college is that the teachers are often actively working in the field they teach in. In this case, my teacher was a well-known local bandleader.

One of the benefits of community college is that the teachers are often actively working in the field they teach in. In this case, my teacher was a well-known local bandleader.

Then a woman much older than I volunteered. She got up and spoke into the microphone. “For my whole life I was afraid of talking in front of people,” she said by way of introduction. “I’m taking this class so I can get over that.”

I thought, “she’s afraid of talking in front of people and now she’s going to sing jazz into a microphone?”

That’s all I needed. When he asked for the next volunteer, I raised my hand. If a woman 20 years my senior with no vocal training was willing to put herself out there, who was I to pretend I couldn’t do it?

I did it, and then every week following I did it again and again.

There’s a lot of wrangling going on right now about the purpose of community college. The combination of limited funds and the push for “college for everyone” has incited discussion on whether community colleges are for the community as a whole or just for the specific purposes of helping young people on to four-year colleges and giving specific technical degrees.

Personally, I have always loved the “community” aspect of community college, and I think it would be sad to see it go. I have both taught at and been a student at a few different community colleges, and I think they only benefit from mixing the “young divas” with the more, ahem, seasoned members of our community.

My jazz class was a great example. Each student was there for a different purpose—there were a few music majors preparing to apply to four-year universities. There were some lost souls who drifted out of high school and were now drifting into college without a plan. There were adults who just love adult ed and have taken a variety of courses over the years. And there were adults who had specific agendas, such as being more comfortable in front of an audience.

Our teacher didn’t spend much time “teaching”—he didn’t have to. Each student inadvertently brought his or her own wisdom and questions into the mix, and just performing and working together engendered deep learning in everyone. Occasionally our teacher would see an opportunity for a bit of a lecture, but he kept it short and to the point.

People who want to separate the community college from the community are probably unaware of how much learning takes place in a classroom that seems so informal. They are also probably unaware of (or unconcerned with) how important intergenerational learning can be to many of the eighteen-year-olds who end up drifting into community college simply because nothing had gelled for them yet.

I wish those people would attend a class like the one I was in. They would see the teacher energized by working with older adults who shared a passion with him. They would see that same teacher trying to offer confused and unhappy teens a reason to put some structure into their newly unregimented lives. They would see a bunch of people modeling healthy learning behavior for each other: set a task, work on it a bit, fail to perform as well as they’d like, work more, succeed.

At the end of the semester, we all performed songs we’d prepared in a local bar that hosts jazz bands. Though our teacher wasn’t much for direct instruction, it was clear how much we’d all learned.

I don’t know if I’ll take another class soon, but I love knowing that community college is there for me, a member of our community, as well as everyone else who wants to continue their education.

Posted in Arts & Music, Education.

Homeschooling High School

I had the very fun opportunity to teach an online, 4-week seminar called Homeschool Start-Up at Athena’s Advanced Academy this spring. It was great fun for me and my students asked all sorts of great questions. One of the perennial questions that comes up is about homeschooling high school. For some reason, even seasoned homeschoolers sometimes quake at the approach of high school, and end up sending their students back to school. In some families, the students might lead the charge back to school for social reasons, but I think in a lot of cases it happens because neither students nor parents feel confident.

One of the great things about homeschooling high school is doing away with busywork so your student can focus on what s/he really wants to learn.

One of the great things about homeschooling high school is doing away with busywork so your student can focus on what s/he really wants to learn.

We, however, are having a fabulous time doing high school, so below are my recommendations for what all homeschooling parents should do before they give up on the idea. It’s really not that hard, and for a student who commits to this path, it is extremely rewarding and empowering.

#1: Connect with parents online

Get yourself onto a high school homeschooling email list. There are many—each with an emphasis on different types of kids and different homeschooling approaches. (The one I take part in, homeschool2college on Yahoo Groups, is very college-focused, lots of kids who are quite academic and advanced, for example—not a great place for a non-college-focused unschooling family.) There are so many different homeschooling high school options, and they change so quickly, that it’s really important to get up-to-date information. These lists are fabulous resources.

Here’s my warning, however: Don’t get on one of these lists until very soon before your child starts high school. If you get on when s/he’s 6, it’s going to Freak You Out, and we don’t want that!

#2: Find local resources

Lots of what you do is probably going to depend on your local area. My most valuable resource locally is our homeschool program teacher, who has guided hundreds of students through high school. She knows all the ins and outs of the local community college. This is really important because on your national email list someone will say very authoritatively “of course concurrent students can take art classes,” but at your local CC suddenly you’ll find out that’s not true. A local network can save you a lot of work.

#3: Authoritative resources

If your student is looking toward college, a good, straightforward book like College Prep Homeschooling (Byers) will give you a good picture of the sort of bookkeeping and other concerns you want to be prepared for. Again, this is a good book for my family, but yours might be more unschooly (e.g. Forging Paths (Beach) or College without High School (Boles)) or Christian/structured (Homeschooled and Headed for College (Boiko)).

#4: Online resources

There are tons of Facebook groups for different flavors of high school homeschoolers. They’re free – check them all out! Search for “homeschool high school” and choose a few that seem like ones you’d be interested in. Look at the quality of their posts and leave if they’re not helping you. I haven’t used many of the websites much, but Let’s Homeschool High School comes with a high recommendation. In general, I don’t recommend joining groups till you actually need them because you’ll just start running in circles like a rat on a wheel, and then who will homeschool your kids??

And that last comment is key: Don’t go crazy looking for resources when what you need to do is focus on your student’s needs and goals. Don’t think you can plan four years of high school when your student is in eighth grade. And don’t think you won’t have unexpected twists and turns in your path.

Do know that you can do this successfully, and whatever your student’s ultimate goals, you can do it well.

If you want to get notified about the next time we offer Homeschool Start-Up, get on my classes email list or on Athena’s email list.


Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

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