Posts in Practical Parenting

Censored Cilla

December 10th, 2018 Posted by Practical Parenting, Reading Recommendations 2 comments

Hoop skirts and petticoats went out of style before my time as did butter churns. Nonetheless, I am two generations closer to a time when those items were in general use than my grandchildren are. And while I love sharing classic books with the young ones in my life, I also look out for writing situated in current times.

With this in mind, I was delighted to meet the fictional protagonist Cilla Lee-Jenkins, a spunky and funny eight-year-old aspiring author. Like the author, Susan Tan, Cilla’s family is composed of both “white-bread” American and Chinese immigrant grandparents.  The first two books in what may well become a long-running series were almost entirely a pleasure to read. (There is a third book I have not yet read.) Aye, there’s the rub.

In the second book, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book Is a Classic, Cilla’s aunt gets married, providing a pleasurable peek into both Chinese and Korean wedding customs. The sour note comes as Cilla’s aunt’s friend, Jane, is introduced along with her own girlfriend and soon-to-be spouse, Lucy. Sigh.

No big deal is made of the relationship, which suggests to me an assumption that children growing up today should not question two men or two women getting married any more than they would question people from different states getting married. The norm has changed and the expectation is that only someone still in hoop skirts would even think that an explanation is necessary.

Reading books where single-sex relationships are treated as matter-of-fact, of course, promotes exactly that result. Yet, consigning children to only read books written decades or centuries earlier doesn’t seem to be a solution. I turned to my daughter with this dilemma to find out how she would handle it with her ten and eight-year-olds. She had an easy fix for this particular book, consisting of a black marker and a pen to write in an alternate fiancé’s name.  It does mean that my daughter would read the book on loan from the library and then, if she decides it is worth her daughters’ attention,  would need to purchase a copy that she could edit.

When I asked what she would say if her daughters questioned the edit, her response made me smile. Her children are used to edited versions of all sorts of material, including finding paper clothing pasted in her teenage son’s sports magazines. The general concept, that mommy and daddy believe that what you read and see shapes your character, has been present since birth and raises no questions.

I realize that “progressive” parents, teachers and librarians would most likely be aghast at this close censorship of reading materials. Yet, they too monitor media for children extremely carefully and write and read with goals in mind. That is precisely why homosexual relationships are  put into so many children’s books and shows these days. We aren’t differing in the concept of supervision as much as in what we are choosing to present.

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Differentiated What?

December 3rd, 2018 Posted by Homeschooling, Practical Parenting 2 comments

When a friend of mine chose to homeschool her daughter, it greatly agitated her sister. This sibling didn’t raise the usual bugaboo about socialization. Rather, she was horrified at the idea that “just anyone” felt capable of teaching a little girl to read. 

Her consternation made more sense when my friend shared that this sister was a reading specialist, who had invested years and money in training. No wonder my friend’s confidence in her own abilities, despite a glaring lack of credentials, upset her sister.

I am full of admiration for teachers who can take a group of children with disparate interests, maturation and skill levels and coax each one to do his or her best. I deeply respect the skills and dedication of those who teach children who, for one reason or another, don’t respond to regular methods of instruction. However, I don’t appreciate spreading an aura of complexity around areas in which most caring and intelligent parents and teachers are already perfectly capable.

For this reason, I raised a skeptical eye when I saw an announcement for teacher training in differentiated instruction. One way to make parents feel inadequate and to prop up the idea that children need trained teachers is by introducing new and esoteric language. How can one possibly teach one’s own when you don’t even know what educational terminology means ?

I looked around a little and discovered that differentiated instruction is a convoluted way of describing the way that any good parent or teacher has always taught. Recognizing that children may respond to different techniques, constantly assessing a student’s strength and weaknesses, guiding children to understand broad concepts and knowing to vary individual instruction with group instruction are some of the not-very-groundbreaking notions of differentiated instruction. In other words, there is nothing new under the sun. Only a highly educated specialist who left common sense and mentorship at the door and mindlessly swallowed the latest educational textbook theories would have ignored any of these ideas previously.

If your child is thriving in school and has an excellent teacher, I hope you express your appreciation. If your child is doing little more than logging hours in school, I encourage you not to be intimidated by fancy words. We can rephrase Confucius’ words about life to refer to much of today’s educational theory: “Education is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”   

This Agenda May Be Harmful to Your Health

November 28th, 2018 Posted by Homeschooling, Practical Parenting, Susan's Musings 52 comments

I originally started writing this with the intention of posting it on our website as a Practical Parenting column, but then I realized that the problem I’m describing actually affects all of us. While the examples I mention have to do with children’s literature, every detail of the culture surrounding us impacts us, often in ways we don’t recognize.

Some years ago, a member of the California synagogue that my husband and I led worried that she was exhibiting tendencies of paranoia. She revealed that she had multiple locks on her apartment door, wouldn’t open the door to accept packages, and was constantly looking over her shoulder on the street. After a bit of discussion, it became clear to us that she lived in a high-crime neighborhood and rather than being paranoid, she was simply being realistic.

Whenever I see the news, women’s magazines, children’s books or many other media, I find myself hyper-sensitive to underlying agendas. In Stalinist Russia, young students were told to place their heads on their desks after praying to God for candy. Not surprisingly, when they lifted their heads their requests had gone unanswered. Then they were told to ask Stalin for candy and once again lay down their heads. Not surprisingly, candy seemed to rain down as their teachers distributed it while the children’s eyes were squeezed shut.

That approach may have lacked subtlety, but the message was clear. In some ways, more delicately delivered messages can be more dangerous. We don’t even realize that our minds are being directed and our beliefs formed.

One of our granddaughters attends a Jewish elementary school. She and her classmates were assigned a book report on a famous personality. The teacher distributed biographies and our eight-year-old brought home a book detailing the accomplishments of Sally Ride, the first American woman to go into space.

Thankfully, our wonderful daughter, the young student’s mother, looked through the book, Who Was Sally Ride? by Megan Stine before her child did. She wasn’t surprised by the feminist emphasis as that was to be expected and relevant to the story. However, the final paragraphs made her send the book back to the teacher with a note explaining that this was not suitable for her daughter or, indeed, for anyone in the school.

Discussing Dr. Ride’s death from cancer in 2012, the author mentions the astronaut’s desire for privacy concerning her illness as well as about her relationship with her long-time friend, Tam O’Shaughnessy.  The penultimate paragraph cites the ubiquitous and anonymous “some” who were disappointed that Sally Ride was not open about being homosexual.  While the book could have sparked many conversations about science, space, physics and women’s liberation, our daughter did not want to be manipulated into a discussion of homosexuality.

To her distress, the teacher acknowledged (in what seems to me to be an admission of having fallen down on the job) not having read the book and replaced it with a biography of Marie Curie from the same series and by the same author. Alas, this was not necessarily an improvement. On page 84, the reader is introduced to Paul Langevin, the married student of Marie’s dead husband, Pierre. According to Ms. Stine, the scientist probably didn’t intend to fall in love with a married man, but she “followed her heart,” leading to great happiness (followed by difficulties).

Once again, our daughter would have been happy discussing many topics including radium, the Nobel prize, science, and women in science with her eight-year-old. She didn’t want to be led into a discussion of adultery and certainly didn’t appreciate the unstated message conveyed to young people that following one’s heart is just something we do. 

In 2002, The New York Times shattered a boundary when they began listing same-sex couples in the wedding section, changing the name of the section to Weddings/Celebrations as same-sex marriage was not yet legal. Today, to most people under a certain age, any hesitation to celebrate these unions seems ridiculous. There is no longer even an agreement that adultery is a reprehensible activity.

My personal moral system on some issues is out of step with today’s dominant culture as well as with a number of things our country has legalized.  I think this is true for many of you as well.  As a mother, I always monitored my children’s reading. However, I used to be on the lookout for things such as calling friends insulting names or rudeness to parents being presented as normative. The ground has shifted enormously today. Those concerns still matter, but only a few decades ago I was able to assume that biographies were relatively innocent. Parents and teachers today need to be even more vigilantly on guard. In fact, all of us would do well to ask ourselves after everything we read, listen to or watch, “Was there anything in here that tried to nudge me away from what I know is right towards accepting what I know is wrong?”

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Psst! Want the Secret to a Great Education?

November 26th, 2018 Posted by Homeschooling, Practical Parenting, Reading Recommendations No Comment yet

When I was actively homeschooling, I would occasionally see humorous lists citing the top reasons to homeschool.  One that resonated with me (and seemed serious to me even if it lent itself to funny illustrations) was that homeschooling validated hours upon hours of reading. Not only did I get to read in order to prepare for teaching, but there was a practical need for reading books about education and learning.

With that in mind, those of you in the trenches of parenting whether you are homeschooling or not, might enjoy reading two books that I recently finished. Lenora Chu is an America journalist whose parents immigrated to the States from China. When she and her small town, Minnesota-bred, blond and blue-eyed husband attain career opportunities in China, she utilizes her skills to explore and compare education in China and her home country. Since the couple has two young children, one of whom they enroll in school, her writing is conflicted, passionate and very human.

Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School and the Global Race to Achieve is a fun read that will make you think. Like Ms. Chu, you may find yourself alternately horrified, envious, curious and forced to analyze exactly what your goals for education are.

The second book I enjoyed was the smartest kids in the world by Amanda Ripley. (Neither the title nor the author’s name are capitalized on the cover though that has nothing to do with the content that I could see.) Like Ms. Chu, Ms. Ripley is a journalist who turns her talents to explore some of the most successful schools around the world. She follows three American high-school students as they respectively study abroad in Finland, South Korea and Poland as well as visiting and interviewing educators, parents and additional students in the United States and abroad.

Not surprisingly, she finds that some of the most successful school systems run on systems that diametrically conflict with the systems of other successful schools. There is no secret formula to be followed, but rather a variety of methods and ideas that each have their positive and negative sides.

Depending on your personality and confidence level, both these books can be supportive or threatening. They can reassure you that your personal parenting and teaching techniques can breed success even if they conflict with those around you or set you on a futile journey to incorporate a mishmash of ideas that will leave you and your kids exhausted and dejected. If you can avoid the potential pitfalls, relax and enjoy getting input from a variety of places, both these books deliver thought-provoking insights on education wrapped in a good read. 

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The Man in the Glass

November 20th, 2018 Posted by Homeschooling, Practical Parenting, Reading Recommendations 6 comments

I’ve written about how Justice William C. Goodloe set our family on a path of appreciating poetry. One of the first poems he recited for us, and set our children to memorizing, came to mind when we were answering an Ask the Rabbi question. I thought I would share it with you. (This is the version I saw. Pelf is an archaic word for money. I’m not sure if there was so little punctuation in the original.)

The Man in the Glass by Dale Wimbrow

When you get what you want in your struggle for pelf
and the world makes you king for a day
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
and see what that man has to say

For it isn’t your father or mother or wife
who judgment upon you must pass
The fellow whose verdict counts the most in your life
is the one staring back from the glass

Some people may think you a straight-shooting chum
and call you a wonderful guy
But the guy in the glass says you’re only a bum
if you can’t look him straight in the eye

He’s the fellow to please never mind all the rest
for he’s with you clear up to the end
And you’ve passed your most dangerous difficult test
if the man in the glass is your friend

You may fool the whole world down the pathway
of life and get pats on the back as pass
But your final reward will be heartaches and
tears if you’ve cheated the man in the glass. 

Make Mine a Capital

November 19th, 2018 Posted by Homeschooling, Practical Parenting No Comment yet

Being a homeschooling mom taught me a tremendous amount. Not only did I vastly expand my knowledge of academic subjects but the adventure encouraged me to think independently. Growing up as an extremely compliant student, I dutifully completed my lessons and studied hard. As an adult looking at textbooks and workbooks from a different vantage point, I was full of skepticism.

Raise your hand if you know to start a sentence with a capital letter when writing in English. How about if you know that people’s names should be capitalized? Now think back to when you learned those basic rules? If you grew up with English as your primary language it was probably quite early. Perhaps in 1st grade or even before that.

When I looked for homeschooling material, this fact made it hard for me to understand why English language and grammar workbooks aimed at second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth-graders opened with a basic lesson about capitalization complete with practice exercises. The simple rules aren’t so convoluted that they needs constant repetition. These same books didn’t, for example, continue showing pictures of a mop, broom and pail, asking students to underline the word that starts with an ‘m’ sound. The assumption was that once you learned the ‘m’ sound, you didn’t need to be retaught it every year.

By teaching multiple grades, either at the same time or over the course of homeschooling, I became aware of just how much needless and boring busy-work like this is included in our children’s education. Don’t we all get annoyed when, for example while trying to access help for an insurance claim, we are relayed from agent to agent and forced to endlessly repeat information?  Unless they have been dulled into a stupor, intelligent children similarly object to wasting their time on repetitive nonsense.

The rule about starting a sentence with a capital letter doesn’t actually need a workbook at all. It is easy to point this pattern out after a session of cuddling on the couch while reading to a young child. When that same child  begins to write, the rule can be emphasized and insisted upon in formal writing, such as thank you notes. In fact, the time saved from doing those needless workbook pages can go to dictating or writing actual letters that utilize capitalization while cementing relationships as well as instilling thoughtfulness, gratitude and manners. Those lessons, after all, are the ones that truly need repetition every year of our lives.

How Do You Homeschool?

November 12th, 2018 Posted by Homeschooling, Practical Parenting No Comment yet

Veteran homeschoolers are frequently asked two questions. Those who tend to object to homeschooling ask, “What about socialization,” while those thinking of homeschooling want to know, “What curriculum do you use?”

I want to focus on the second question. I often hear it expressed in a yearning tone. Parents who are unhappy with their children’s schooling or reluctant to send their little one off to school seem to be saying, “I want to do this so please tell me what to do.” To quote Shakespeare, “Aye, there’s the rub.” Most of the time, homeschooling is a dance that each mother (it is usually, though not always, the mom) and individual child do. When it is done best, it isn’t a matter of memorizing and executing steps, but of being completely in touch with one’s partner and sensitive to the unique personalities, interests and styles of both mother and child.


You Are Not a Cow

November 8th, 2018 Posted by Practical Parenting, Susan's Musings 41 comments

A short while ago, my husband and I answered an ‘Ask the Rabbi’ question about whether deciding not to have children was acceptable. I was struck by the many reader comments we received that were variations of, “Better not to have children if you can’t be a good parent.”

At the same time, on the advice of someone I respect, I picked up a novel aimed at young teens which dealt with a boy overcoming an abusive home. You may remember that I recently wrote a book review recommending a historical fiction book for even slightly younger children that shared a similar premise.

While I saw how engaging this second book was, it troubled me.  There is something wrong in presenting a dysfunctional view of family and society as the norm even if the underlying message is that tribulation can be overcome.  When popular literature and entertainment repeatedly emphasize  a theme, much more than just the intended message can get absorbed.


I Didn’t Plan to Be a Witch

November 7th, 2018 Posted by Practical Parenting, Reading Recommendations No Comment yet

Most book titles mean something only if you are familiar with the contents of the book. There is nothing particularly descriptive about the words, Little Women or Tom Sawyer. The titles evoke a reaction only because the books are well known. More intriguing names like The Red Badge of Courage or The Scarlet Letter are also only meaningful after reading the book. Even a short plot synopsis doesn’t automatically let you know that this book will be one of those that becomes a classic and which you might find yourself reading over and over. Four sisters during the Civil War years go about their daily lives, maturing from girlhood to womanhood. Not terribly gripping, is it?

The above doesn’t apply to one of my favorite reads, I Didn’t Plan to be a Witch. This mother’s lament at not always measuring up to her image of what she should be, grabbed me at the title. The author, Linda Eyre, had previously written a best-selling book with her husband, Teaching Your Children Values, which evolved into a series of books like Teaching Your Children Joy, etc. That information was enough for me to know that this book wasn’t going to be sordid tale of drugs or promiscuity. Indeed, I Didn’t Plan to be a Witch echoed my internal cry when I didn’t live up to my own standards. I enjoyed the book, but the title stayed my favorite part through the years. Just looking at it on the shelf could make me laugh and buoy my spirits especially on those days that I felt like a failure. The book still fills that purpose for one of my daughters who has “borrowed” it, finding it reassuring after a disappointing day. 


Building Self-Respect in Children

November 4th, 2018 Posted by Practical Parenting No Comment yet

Chase, the father of a five-year-old girl as well as two boys, aged three and one, wrote to my husband and me asking how to build self-respect in his children. Chase read an ‘Ask the Rabbi’ answer we wrote on the topic of self-esteem vs. self-respect, but is looking for more practical advice – perfect fodder for this Practical Parenting column.   

He writes, “I often tell my kids I’m proud of them and I appreciate them. I tell them of all the amazement I see in them. Would this be too much on the self-esteem track?”

Dear Chase,

You are in a wonderful position. You, and I assume your wife, are consciously thinking about how you communicate with your children and what you want them to value. You have a wonderful adventure ahead of you.

One-year-olds are naturally full of self-respect even though it sounds odd to think about them in that way. Self-respect follows achievement. Babies are constantly learning new skills and conquering challenges. We get excited when a baby starts walking or talking and they love the attention we bestow on them for doing so, but they would be excited even without us. Something within most children pushes them to get upright and move and thrills them when they master new abilities.

As our kids get older, we sometimes inadvertently dampen their internal excitement and make them reliant instead on our approval. Schools often do this when they tamp down the natural desire for knowledge and instead train students to focus on stickers or grades. Parents too, can diminish the joy in drawing a picture or building a tower by being overly effusive. Instead of looking to outdo her own creation, the child starts looking to get a bigger external response.