Under Pressure

What do you do when your middle school child struggles with homework? Or when the pressure and grades seem to get in the way of their education? Reflections on the struggles of parenting a middle school child, along with a crazy idea that goes against everything we’re taught as parents.

I feel kind of old saying this out loud, but it’s finals week here in the Six house. Elena is in 7th grade this year, and for the first time in her school career, finals week is a thing. And it matters.

Of course, tests and doing well in school have always mattered to us. We view school as her “job,” and we expect her to give her best effort. But we also see school as one part of the pie, if you will. Yes, it’s very important. But it also isn’t everything. There are lots of opportunities to exercise your body and mind, to grow and learn, that take place out of school. There must be time for play. And there must always be time to just relax. As seriously as we take school, and expect her to take school, we also try to emphasize the balance. Sometimes, there are things that are more important than busywork.

In past years, this has been fairly easy to balance. Until she transitioned to public school from Montessori in 4th grade, she never had homework. Upon entering public school she tested into the district’s gifted program. You would imagine that this might mean more homework, but we found the opposite of that to be true. She had some, for sure, but it wasn’t every day, and it was always reasonable.

Junior high, it seems, is where that party ends. It’s been a struggle this year, for both of us. She has 6 classes, and in each of those classes it is not unusual for each teacher to assign homework. It doesn’t seem like much to each teacher, probably – twenty or thirty minutes per class. But multiply twenty minutes by 6 classes? Suddenly she’s faced with two hours of homework each night. Add to that a requirement of 2 1/2 hours of instrument practice outside of school each week, and suddenly the concept of play and free time become something of fairy tales or mythology. Does it even exist?

It’s a struggle for her – to keep up, to not burn out, to do her best day in and day out. It’s a struggle for us. It’s hard to watch your kid be expected to do things most adults wouldn’t stand for. Imagine this: you leave for work every day at 7 a.m. From 7:30 until 2:30, you’re in meeting after meeting. You’re listening, taking notes, trying to understand the message. At the end of each meeting, you’re given a task to complete. No biggie, right? You’ll get it done after the meeting, right? Only there is no “after the meeting” scheduled into your work day. You get a short break for lunch, and forty minutes at the end of the day to tie up any loose ends. Then you go home. Now, this is where the average adult worker would call it a day. They’d spend time with their family, run their errands, take care of personal things, relax, live their life. On a hectic week at work, they might have to bring some work home, but it wouldn’t be expected every day.

That’s not what I see for these kids in my community. After 7 hours of school, they come home and dive right into another 2-3 hours of homework. If they get started on it right after school, on a good night, they might have an hour or two to relax before bed. But what if it’s a gorgeous afternoon, and they want to toss the football or ride their bikes to Taco Bell with their friends? What if they have sports or other extra-curricular activities after school? Well, you’re looking at homework into the 9 and 10 o’clock hour. Then it’s up-and-at-em again at 6 a.m. the next morning. Ask any adult to do this, day in and day out for 9 months out of the year and they’d tell you where to shove it.

There’s not a lot parents can do in this more-is-better culture we live in. You can homeschool, but that isn’t the ideal or realistic option for everyone (and certainly not for our family). If you have the means, you can look for a private school that better meets your family philosophy. You can rebel against the system, and do it your own way – maybe you draw the line at an hour of homework each day. Maybe you sit down together and decide what assignments are worth the time and which seem frivolous. But at what cost? When those grades and those classes start counting towards that all-important G.P.A., what choice do you have then? (And at this point, kids in junior high are already taking high school level classes that count towards their high school G.P.A.)

There is the valid argument that this builds character. Do we want to raise a generation of kids that can’t rise to a challenge? I’m all for giving kids at this age opportunities to hone their time management skills. It’s an essential life skill, and you know how we feel about teaching valuable life skills here at The Risky Kids. Instead, I feel as if we’re inadvertently teaching these kids a different concept: burn-out. This week, of all weeks, when Elena should be looking forward to putting her knowledge to the test and completing a semester well done, she’s simply DONE. One teacher even assigned a homework worksheet in between a two-part final!

If it were simply a matter of pushing through, and reassuring these kids that their best effort was enough, that if they’re learning and mastering concepts regardless of the grade it’s all good, then I’d probably not get up on my soapbox. But it’s not enough.

Next semester, Elena is switching math classes. She’s moving down from 2-year advanced math to 1-year advanced. The material is moving too fast for her, and she’s not mastering the concepts before they move on. Now mind you, this is a high school class, offered for 7th graders. When I told her that the move down meant that she’d take Chemistry as a sophomore instead of as a freshman, she started to panic. She had to take Chemistry as a freshman, she said, otherwise she’d fall behind. Where did she get such a notion? From a workshop on college prep that she had in school a few weeks ago. “Hopefully I’ll still get into college,” she said. And she was completely serious.

You know what I was worried about as a 7th grader? If I had my Kirk Cameron posters lined up straight above my bed.

We have a mission in our family, one that spills over into the philosophy of The Risky Kids: to raise competent, independent, well-rounded kids. Kids who love books and tech. Kids who climb trees and move mountains. Kids who can do laundry and quadratic equations. Kids who can work and play. If that means being the weird family who looks at this gerbil wheel of stress, competition, and relentless pressure that is conventional schooling and says, “Thanks, but no thanks,” then so be it. I would rather have a kid in community college that can look back fondly at their childhood (and yes, your tween and teen years are still your childhood to claim and enjoy), than one in a prestigious college with anxiety.

The easy part is deciding this path isn’t for us. The hard part is convincing these kids it will all be okay.

Those of you in the trenches with tweens and teens, I’d love to hear from you. Is this your experience as well? If you’re on the other side of this life stage, I’d love to hear from you, too. How did you get through it?

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Kids and Pets: How Owning a Pet Builds Character

kids and pets

It’s been nearly 2 months now since we made the leap to dog ownership, and what a fun 2 months it’s been! We waited a long time before taking the plunge, and now that we’re here, I have two things to say: I’m so glad we got a dog … and I’m so glad we waited.

We talk a lot on The Risky Kids about how important it is to us that we raise kids who are responsible and confident in their skills. And one really good way to give kids more responsibility and confidence is to put them in charge of something. When that something just happens to be a real, living thing … well, you can imagine the effect is magnified.

We’ve had “pets” before, of the fish variety, and I always used their sad stories to illustrate for the kids why I thought they weren’t ready for a dog or cat. You probably know the scenario: kid begs for pet, parents want minimal upkeep, fish is chosen as compromise, fish is exciting for 2.5 days, no one gives a crap about the fish anymore, fish dies. That, my friends, is the fish circle of life right there. The kids swore fish were different, they would be better about a real pet. You know, one they could actually pet? I was very, very skeptical.

They’ve been trying to wear me down on the puppy front for years, and finally all the pieces were in place. The house we moved in to has an invisible fence the previous owners installed and left behind. We knew we had our big trip to Spain coming up for nearly 2 years, and I told them we wouldn’t take on the responsibility of a dog and have to worry about finding someone to watch it for a month. Well, now the trip is behind us. Finally, I needed the kids to be fairly self-sufficient themselves.  I wanted them to be able to walk our neighborhood on their own, get their own food, and clean up their own messes before I signed up to walk, feed, and clean up another living being. Lo and behold, we got back from Spain and the kids were quick to point out that all my previous requirements had been met. What were we waiting for? And so with everything in place, we began looking for a dog that would be a good fit for our family. Soon after, we found Gus.

What do you know? The dog > fish theory my kids presented was actually right. I have been, quite frankly, blown away by Elena and Eli’s ability to care for an animal properly. Two months in, and here are just a few key areas of character I’ve seen the kids grow in:

Thinking of others

Having a dog puts certain constraints on what you can do and how long you can be gone. The kids have learned that we can’t leave the house all day and not make arrangements for the puppy. We can’t simply leave him in the crate for 10 hours and forget about him.

Taking care of daily responsibilities

There are some things that you always have to do, whether you feel like it or not. The puppy needs fed twice a day. He needs his water bowl filled. He needs played with and exercised daily. He needs to go outside to pee and poop many times a day. All these things need to be done, no matter the weather, your mood, the status of your social life, or the amount of homework you brought home.

The importance of putting things where they belong

Puppies are like toddlers – with an uncanny ability to sense what they shouldn’t have and then seek and destroy it. While we’ve been lucky that Gus hasn’t ruined anything of extreme importance (though he has great taste in socks – Smartwool, to be exact), the kids have learned that toys, socks, shoes, books, and electronic devices need to be put up and out of reach if they want to ensure their safety.

The consequences of shirking your duties

We had one very bad night where Elena was in charge of the puppy by herself. She got sucked into her iPod and neglected to watch Gus like she should. The result? He pooped and peed multiple times in the house. Which leads me to …

Taking care of unpleasant tasks

We could’ve have easily scolded her and then cleaned up ourselves. It would’ve been faster and less filled with tween dramatics. But there’s a valuable lesson to be had here. Sometimes life hands you nasty stuff you don’t want to deal with, but you have to. Dogs poop, and it needs to be scooped. Just like one day you’ll have to clean someone else’s pee off a toilet, or change a dirty diaper, or wash someone else’s dishes.

The reward of a job well done

This is where taking care of a dog really shines. Because the kids have invested the time and effort into feeding, walking, and playing with Gus, he rewards them in the best of all ways: with lots of love, snuggles and puppy kisses. Of course, I’ve been doing that their entire lives, but when it comes from a dog? So much better.

Not only are these skills important to learn in order to take care of a pet, they’re absolutely necessary for living a happy, productive, and well-adjusted life! Teach them now, and your kids’ siblings, teachers, friends, future roommates, bosses and spouses will thank you later.

Now, I would never suggest you get a pet just to teach your kids responsibility or to build their confidence. Adding a pet to your family is a huge, long-term commitment, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. But if you’ve been thinking about it, and you’re ready on all fronts except for wondering if the kids will benefit? Then by all means, take the leap!

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The Unscheduled Summer: Putting the Break Back in Summer

Unscheduled summer

Well hello there {dusts cobwebs off keyboard}! It’s been awhile!

I had absolutely no intention of taking a break from blogging, but as I turned the calendar to August and the last days of summer vacation stared me in the face, I found the last place I wanted to be was in front of a glowing computer screen. It was both difficult and easy at the same time.

You see, I love a good routine. I love feeling productive. I love making lists (that are realistically too long to accomplish) and grand plans (that even with the best of intentions) are doomed to be derailed. And so there I was, fresh off the plane after being gone for a month, making detailed editorial calendars for this blog, dreaming up grand posts that would require hours of writing and editing, and trying to catch up on a month’s worth of emails. It sounded so doable in my head and on paper! But then I would think about sitting down at the computer and my chest would feel tight and all of the inspiration would drain out of me. It was just one more thing to do, in a summer that – while it was fun and amazing traveling the world – was begging me to stop and slow down.

In eight years of blogging, both here and on my personal blog, I’ve never just taken an unannounced break and walked away. I stressed about it a lot in the beginning and wondered if it was an okay thing to do. And then, once I’d spent a few days away, it was easy. I didn’t fill the time with anything else remotely productive. I just took each day as it came and enjoyed whatever came out of it.

Summer Reading Kids

The same could be said of my kids. They, too, took a break this summer. Normally my love of lists and grand plans spills over into our summer as well. We can’t be too idle! And so I sign them up for a few camps. I make plans for a few road trips and visits to local museums. We sign up for two or three reading programs. I set up detailed rules for screen use.

After spending the first half of the summer away, I decided the rest of the summer would be unscheduled. No camps, no reading lists, no bridge activities, no trips, and no screen time rules. I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t always pretty. We spent many a morning still in our pajamas with unbrushed teeth and hair at 11 a.m. The pile of books the school sent home with Eli still sits by the fireplace, unread. The house was messy, we were lazy, and we spent more than enough time watching dumb TV or playing mindless games on the iPad.

But …

The kids also played a lot. Lazy mornings more often than not turned into creative, fun-filled afternoons with friends. Not having plans or anywhere to be meant we were free to go to the pool when we wanted, play when we wanted, be bored when we wanted, and to be creative when we wanted.

In short, an unscheduled summer gave us the freedom to dream, relax and recharge. Isn’t that what a break is all about?

lazy summers

Now, I’m not saying each and every summer from here on out should operate like this one. We spent 4 weeks of one summer completely unscheduled. Any more time than that would’ve gone from wonderful to disastrous. The sibling squabbling had picked up and the bad kind of boredom was setting in. By the time school started last week we were itching for a regular routine.

But what if we took a few days or a week out of our school breaks or vacations and allow them to be exactly that: breaks. I think so often we look at blank days or weekends with a sense of guilt or shame. We should be doing something. We confuse doing nothing with wasted time. True – doing nothing does start out as an empty slot of time. But when we give the empty space time to fill on its own, we allow ourselves to be filled with things that bring us joy, inspiration, and fun. We walk away full, not depleted.

Beyond this gift, I also see the valuable lesson that unscheduled time gives ourselves and our kids. We are living in a time when we could fill every second of every day with some kind of activity or connection. We are slowly but surely losing the ability to cope with down time. We don’t know what to do when we’re not doing something! I want my kids to grow up knowing the value of free time. More importantly, I want them to make it a routine part of their lives. In order to teach that lesson, like so many important life lessons, I realize I have to model it in my own life.

And so I took a break myself. I’m relaxed and recharged and ready to dive back into The Risky Kids again.

Do you build downtime into your days, weekends or vacations? If so, what benefits have you seen? And if not, what holds you back from doing so?

 

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3 Cultural Differences In Europe That Would Freak Out American Parents

After a long day of sightseeing in Madrid, we made our way to our apartment on the Metro. Madrid’s public transportation system is excellent and easy to use. So easy, in fact, that kids can do it on their own. Nearly every time we used the Metro, we saw kids traveling either alone or in groups of other kids. I would estimate that the youngest kids we saw without parents were around 10 or 11 years old. It was one of the first of many instances during our trip to Spain that I noticed just how different our cultures view kids. Here are a few other things I observed in Spain that you never (or rarely) see in the States:

Regents Park Playground London

Unique and Challenging Playgrounds: I’ll share some photos soon to show you what I mean, but I was impressed (and envious) at the number and variety of playgrounds in both London and Spain. We rented bikes in Madrid and rode along a paved path next to the river. In just 3 miles I counted 5 playgrounds along the path, and each one was completely different. I noticed lots of opportunities for climbing, balancing, and imaginative play. Most of the playgrounds we saw were in urban settings, meaning kids don’t have to travel far to have a safe and challenging place to play.

Zoorooms Barcelona

Unaccompanied Minors: Beyond the kids traveling without adults on public transportation, we also saw lots of kids wandering around town on their own. Whether they were out with friends or running errands for parents, it was clear this was business as usual. We spent the last week of our trip in a small beach town in southern Spain. Our house was about a 5 minute walk from the town’s main plaza, lined with shops and cafes. Each evening we’d walk to the plaza for tapas. I’d give the kids a few Euros and let them wander around on their own while the adults ate and enjoyed a few drinks. It wasn’t unusual to see kids running around on their own until 10 p.m. Meanwhile, in the US, you can go to jail for letting your 9-year-old go to the park on their own.

Toledo Spain pet store

Stranger Interaction Without Paranoia: I feel as if in the States, any interaction between an adult male and a child is immediately viewed with suspicion. Why would a grown man be interested in a child unless he had nefarious motives? However in Spain it’s not unusual to see adults chatting and interacting with kids they don’t know. I saw one interaction in particular that would probably you arrested in the States. A man was pushing a cart full of snacks for sale along the beach. As kids would approach the cart and buy snacks from him, he’d chat with them, tousling their hair or chucking them lightly on the nose. In general, adults were more touchy with kids than you’d ever see here. It was so refreshing to see adults interacting with kids without the immediate reaction that their behavior was pervy or suspicious.

Of course I realize that a few weeks spent somewhere in no way gives you a clear snapshot of the way things really are. I know that things are not perfect in Europe. They struggle with many of the same issues we do, such as access to play and a dependence on screens and technology.  And of course there were many comforts of home and things about the US that my kids missed and realized they’d taken for granted. They love their large, grassy yards and wide open spaces in which to play.

At the same time, they wished they could enjoy the independence and the ability to roam around town without needing cars or parents. Elena was especially affected by the difference in cultures. She envisioned how different her social life would be in Spain, with the ability to meet friends in town and go places together. Here, even the simplest of plans involves checking parents’ schedules, arranging transportation, and often inconveniencing at least one parent because no one wants to leave the kids alone at the mall, the movies, etc. And so instead of being out, doing kid things, she’s often stuck at home and bored. She said she wished she could bottle up everything she loved about Spain and bring it to our hometown.

One of the great things about travel is that it serves to open your eyes to new ways of living and doing things. Thanks to the things we observed, I’m inspired and confident that we can do things just a little differently in the United States. We can give our kids challenging playgrounds close to where they live and play. We can let them roam and be independent as they grow and mature. And we can let them interact with other adults without assuming the worst.

Have you traveled abroad and been surprised at the cultural differences in play and parenting? I’d love to hear some of your stories about the things you noticed on your travels!

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Free-Range Parenting From the Helicopter

Please join me in welcoming my friend Liz, of Eternal Lizdom, to The Risky Kids today! Liz is a mom of 2 and a fellow blogger. Earlier this year I posed the question: what do you do when you and your spouse disagree on kids’ activities? It’s a question I get asked a lot, and while Mike and I have the same basic philosophy when it comes to our parenting style and tolerance for independent play, I know many of you struggle with this. Liz has some experience on the topic, and I think you’ll find her perspective helpful and enlightening! 

I’m not usually one to adhere to labels when it comes to parenting. But in our household, we do have 2 different styles when it comes to the independent play and living of our kids.

I’m something of a “free-range parent.” I encourage my kids to be independent and not constantly under my rules and supervision. My husband is more of a “helicopter parent.” He prefers to always know where the kids are, be able to see them, and have direct influence over their decisions. In some ways, this could cause a lot of conflict in a family. These can be very different styles.

When we go to the park, I’m more likely to bring a book and sit on a bench and enjoy the sunshine while the kids run off and play. My husband is more likely to stand on the playground and patrol the borders, keeping an eye on the kids as they play.

At the grocery store, I will send my 9-year-old to pick up something I forgot a few aisles or sections back. My husband will circle back and take everyone along to pick up the forgotten item – wanting to keep an eye on everyone and also wanting to make sure that the correct item is chosen.

When playing outside, I let the kids have the run of the street with their friends. My husband prefers that they play in one set location so that he can check on them at any time.

The interesting thing is … we don’t really fight about it. I can easily see where we would. These can be very different styles, especially when we are all out together. But I think we both see the value in our differences. So I bite my tongue sometimes when he insists on doing things that I see as controlling small behaviors. And he sometimes has to bite his tongue when he thinks I’m letting them have too much freedom.

When it comes to “biting my tongue,” the thing I do to help with that is to stop and think about my kids in the future. I think about how they will describe their childhood and their memories. And my hope is that they will see our different styles in a positive way – and when I try to project to the future and look back, I can see how dad’s style has a lot of benefits for them in the long run (even if I find it frustrating right now).

He’s driven by wanting them to learn how to make the best choice now. He wants them to benefit from his life experience, to accept his knowledge and adult perspective. He wants to protect them from making mistakes and getting hurt. I want them to learn by making mistakes and getting hurt. Not that I want my children to hurt – it’s horrible to watch your child suffer in any way. But I also know that my kids learn when they are in a more difficult situation and have to think it through. My husband wants to be the main source of knowledge and wisdom and answer for our kids. I want to be a place they can safely come and talk to, someone who can offer guidance and other perspectives but the decision is still left to them.

The bottom line is that our kids benefit from both of our styles. They learn from dad that sometimes there is a need for caution, there is a reason to be careful with how we proceed. From mom, they learn about responsibility and to use their instincts and sense of caution to make their choices.

And in the end, all of our choices are made because we love our children. As long as that is the message that comes through to them, I think we’re doing just fine.

(Ironically, as I finish writing this, my husband is taking a big step by allowing our 9-year-old to stay home alone while he runs to the grocery store. I’m proud of him!)

Also – a book that really has helped me develop into this more-allowing-of-freedom parent is “Protecting the Gift” by Gavin DeBecker. I know a lot about what there is to fear in the world and this book helped me to realize that my instincts are very trustworthy. I highly recommend it to all parents.

Thank you so much for sharing with us, Liz! It sounds like your kids have the best of both worlds! Have any of you ever experienced the same thing – one of you is more “free-range” than the other parent? What’s your best advice for parenting with respect for your partner’s differences and concerns?

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Good Question: What’s Your “Sick Leave” Policy for Kids?

Sick kids

This month’s Good Question comes from a friend who wondered what’s the appropriate way to handle sick kids and social and/or school situations. I realize this is probably odd timing for this particular topic. But the true spirit of a Good Question, it had me wondering, “What does everyone else do?” So even though I realize cold and flu season is (mostly) behind us, and school is winding down for the year, kids still get sick and we still have to deal with the dilemmas that surround illness all year long.

Her question specifically delves into the grey area surrounding illness. We’re not talking about the obvious: fever, vomiting, raging pink eye. I think we can all agree that when our kids are obviously ill and contagious, it’s in everyone’s best interest to hunker down. She referenced a family situation in which one set of parents were very concerned about illness of any kind, while another family was more lax. If there was an upcoming family gathering at Grandma’s, and any of the cousins had been sick recently or had runny noses, the one family wanted to err on the side of caution. Either Grandma had to call it off, or they weren’t coming if the recovering kids were going to be there. It was beginning to cause strife in the family. Was one party over-reacting to potential germs? Or was the other party under-reacting, and selfishly putting other kids at risk for a nasty bug? And whose side was poor Grandma supposed to be on?!

I haven’t dealt with this myself personally, but I can understand the dilemma it poses for families. Beyond social situations, I can see how parents who work full-time must wrestle with where the line is. Are the kids sick enough that they shouldn’t be in school, causing a parent to miss work? Or is it okay for kids to go to school, say, at 75% of their functioning level, or with a runny nose from a cold that just won’t go away?

This might not seem like a normal topic of conversation for The Risky Kids, but I think it touches on a subject that has everything to do with The Risky Kids. Are we living in a society that believes we have (near) complete control over the health and safety of our kids? That if we just do everything right, if we are vigilant enough, not only are we superior parents, but we can protect our children from just about any harm or discomfort?

As you can imagine, I lean to the side of being under-cautious. If my kids are obviously sick, we’re not going to school or to Grandma’s house. But if they’re fever-free, not puking, and not oozing suspect bodily fluids … and they’re up to going to school or being around other kids, I’m okay with it. And by saying I’m okay with it (and I think this is key here if you’re going to make this judgement call), that means I’m okay with you doing the same thing with your kids. Of course we take the polite and responsible precautions: we wash hands a lot, blow our noses, and keep our food and drinks to ourselves. And if for some reason we’re going to be around kids who are in a special situation, such as being immuno-compromised, then we absolutely stay away.

What do you say? Have you ever been on either end of this situation? I’d love to hear from both camps. As with most Good Questions, I’m sure there are some view points and situations I’m just not aware of. And if you have a Good Question you’d like to ask, let me know in the comments or on our Facebook page!

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Sleepaway Camp: An Essential Childhood Experience

Sleepaway camp essential childhood experience
Portions of this post originally appeared on The Risky Kids last summer. As summer camp season approaches yet again, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the topic of sleepaway camp for kids. If your kids are headed to camp this summer, I highly recommend the Camp Combo label pack from Mabel’s Labels (affiliate link). I’ve used them 2 years in a row now – they’re still holding on strong and we haven’t lost a single thing at camp yet!

Last summer we sent Elena, age 10 (almost 11) at the time, to two weeks of sleepaway camp. It wasn’t her first experience – she’d gone to the same Girl Scout camp for a week the summer before – but it was the longest she’d ever been away from us.

For 11 days and 10 nights we had absolutely no contact with her.  We could send bunk notes (essentially email), but she couldn’t email back.  I sent her with enough stationary and stamps for a trip to Europe, but she’d been too busy having fun to send home more than one postcard.

My husband and I didn’t grow up going to sleepaway camps.  I tried sleep away camp “lite” once and hated it.  It was a day camp that culminated in sleeping outside on the last evening.  I was 5 miles away from home and only gone for 24 hours, but that didn’t stop me from trying every trick in the book to get my mom to pick me up before the night was over.  Elena, on the other hand, really enjoys camp.  Every year we offer her the chance to buddy up and choose a week with friends.  She brushes us off and instead chooses her weeks based on the theme.  Last year it was Harry Potter one week and the Hunger Games (Kamp Katniss) the next.  Every time she went without knowing a soul.

Why do we think it’s important for her to go away to camp, when neither of us have good memories to draw upon?  For so many reasons that I think are essential to growing up.  It’s often a child’s first experience of pulling away.  I want her to learn how to be away from us, and to have fun while doing it.  I want her to start building that treasure chest of memories that don’t include us.  I want her to have that sense of pride of doing something on your own.  I want her to be able to survive for stretches of days without apps and texting and TV and be okay without it.

She came home with the smelliest laundry and the best stories.  The 90-minute ride home is full of chatter about all the amazing things they did during the week.  Any parent of a tween or teen will tell you they would gladly pay whatever the camp fee is just to get a kid that wants to talk to you uninterrupted for 90 minutes.

I hope that summer camper turns into a camp counselor.  I hope the camp counselor turns into an eager college student.  I hope the eager college student turns into a world traveler.  And I hope she is never too homesick and she sends more postcards.

Do you send your kids to sleepaway camp? How did you know they were old enough to go? If you went as a kid, what were your favorite memories?

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Risky Reads: The Laundry Basket Edition

Asleep in the laundry basket

For about a week last month, Eli became mildly obsessed with the laundry basket. Sadly, it had nothing to do with folding the clothing in the laundry basket. But he did drag it around with him through the house, using it as a boat, a jail for his LEGOs, and a cozy, blanket and pillow-filled reading nook. One evening I checked in on him before bed. He was sleeping in the laundry basket! He did this for a couple of nights. Can you imagine if we tried to sleep like that? My neck would never be the same again!

While Eli found 101 uses for a laundry basket, I found a few things around the internet I thought you might enjoy (and that won’t give you a crick in the neck).

Have a kid that’s interested in coding? Check out this fabulous roundup of 20 resources for teaching kids how to code.

Homework can be such a burden on some families. This dad worried about the amount and intensity of his 8th-grade daughter’s homework, so he decided to do her homework for a week. The result is this essay, “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me.”

If that has you down, get ready to be inspired! Have you seen Childhood Unplugged? A group of photographers submits photos monthly of kids engaged in the art of play. All is not lost, friends.

This insect hotel, made of natural materials, would be a beautiful and practical addition to a natural backyard. What a great project for kids to study beneficial insects in their own backyard!

I love this DIY Upcycled Inventor’s Box. It would keep my kids busy for hours, and I’d love to see what creations they’d come up with.

I write for the parenting blog over at Bedtime Math. Last month we explored tessellations, made our own lava lamps, and created some cool domino cascades. This week we found a way to color Easter Eggs volcano-style. Lots of cool stuff going on over there – be sure to check it out!

For more risky inspiration, follow us on Pinterest and like us on Facebook.  And if you ever see anything you think we’d like, please share it with us!

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Good Question: How to Handle the Critics

One of the trickiest parts about parenting is handling the comments, questions, and judgements that come as a result of your choices. Whatever philosophical parenting path you choose (or don’t), there is bound to be someone you’ll come across who disagrees with you.

The choice to free-range parent definitely brings up issues that will, at some point, require you to address the way you parent. In my experience, I find that there are three ways people will raise questions about your parenting:

1. Questions

This is the ideal situation for all parties involved. Asking questions implies a willingness to learn and an open mind. I know for myself, if I’m intrigued by the way someone else parents, questions are the best way to delve deeper into the subject without offending. It’s natural when someone asks you a question about your parenting to assume that they’re questioning your parenting. Don’t! Those are two different things, and by getting defensive right away you lose the opportunity to educate someone about the benefits of free-range parenting. I try to answer questions with the reasons why free-range parenting works for our family, examples of how we free-range parent, and provide stories of the benefits we’ve seen as a result.

2. Advice

This is a grey area. Some advice truly is meant to be helpful. An acquaintance once told me a story of how her daughter was approached at the playground by a suspicious person. She related the story and gave some advice on how they handled the situation. It prompted me to rethink whether or not I was comfortable sending Elena to the playground without me (I was), and to have a conversation with her about how she would handle herself in the same situation. Some advice, however, is really just passive-aggressive judgement trying to cloak itself in helpfulness. In these situations I find that it’s best to just politely say, “Thanks. I’ll take that under consideration.”

3. Rude Comments and/or Judgements

These are the critics I just never seem to know how to handle! Comments like, “I would never let my kids do that, I love them too much,” or “You’re a terrible parent, you’re lucky I don’t call the authorities.” (Both of which have actually been said to me. To my face – not even in YouTube comments!) These are the worst because they bring up so many emotions that lurk beneath the surface of any parent’s mind.  Am I a good enough parent? Am I doing the best thing for my kids? You want to lash out in anger or defend yourself, but in all actuality, it’s not worth the energy. You won’t be changing anyone’s mind.

I’m curious – what’s been your experience when dealing with critics or those who question your parenting style?

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It’s Okay To Say No To Homework

Say No To Homework

We’ve been tremendously lucky when it comes to homework with Elena. And when I say lucky, I mean that she rarely has more than 20-30 minutes worth a day. There’s even a day or two a week when she has no homework at all. For being in 6th grade advanced classes, that’s pretty amazing. So this post is absolutely not about us complaining about the homework situation in our family. But it is about making a decision to say no to homework every now and then.

Elena is in the school band, and as part of her class grade she is required to practice her instrument at home. She has a practice card she turns in weekly, signed by us, and the more she practices, the higher her grade. The other evening, she pulled out her alto saxophone and started trying to figure out the notes to the song “Let It Go” from Disney’s “Frozen.” She worked at it for close to an hour, writing down notes, playing them, thinking, erasing, and trying again.  By the end of her session, she had it figured out.

After she played it for me, her shoulders sagged. When I asked what was wrong, she said she wished she hadn’t spent so much time on it. Now she needed to practice her actual band pieces so she could write down her practice time for the week. Whatever excitement and pride was there from figuring out the music to a favorite song had vanished and was replaced with a sense of dread.

I’m not sure what her band director would’ve said, but I said, “No way! That certainly counts toward practice time.” And I signed her card without any reservations.

Not long after, she spent the entire time between the arriving home from school until bedtime (taking a break for dinner) on my laptop. She was hard at work on trying to develop her own app (Frappy Bird, if you care to know! It’s a riff on the ridiculously popular but impossible Flappy Bird app, only instead of pipes it features Elena’s other obsession: frappauccinos.) She had other things she could’ve been doing. She had vocabulary words to work on, a test in a couple of days, a book to read, a messy room.

In both instances, I decided that working on something she was passionate about was more important than homework. I want her to understand that there is value in the play that excites you. Sometimes feeding the soul and indulging in a hobby takes priority over busy work. I’d like to think that what she learns when she writes a song or fiddles with code will translate into learning. Maybe it won’t help her learn the song they’re working on any faster, or earn her a A instead of a B on a math exam, but it will build skills and spark further learning later on down the line. And I’m okay with saying no to homework if that’s the case.

 Have you ever let your kids choose another activity over homework? Or do you feel like homework, as it’s assigned, is the top priority?

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