Posts in Practical Parenting

Vacuous Vacation or Summer Holiday?

June 3rd, 2019 Posted by Homeschooling, Practical Parenting, Reading Recommendations No Comment yet

Marrying a man born and raised in the British Empire, who speaks “authentic” English expanded my vocabulary. While some words, like queue, made it into my daily speech, others, like bonnet for the hood of the car, never did.

But there is one British word that I have gladly adopted and think is much more joyful and suitable than its American counterpart. I love the way that the British go on holiday rather than vacation. After all, vacation focuses on what you are leaving behind. You are vacating work or school or your daily routine. Holiday is full of mystique and charm, focusing on thrilling activities that will take the place of everyday life.

Holidays are distinct from “holy” days, set aside by religious or even civic duty. When Arthur Ransome titled one of his children’s books, Winter Holiday, he wasn’t talking of Christmas, but rather of what Americans might call winter break. Not surprisingly, as a winter holiday it was not used for going to the dentist, watching TV and sleeping late but instead was a period of adventure and excitement for the protagonists of his story. You might sleep away a break but who would so mistreat a holiday?

There is another dimension to this seemingly minor vocabulary difference. When you vacate or take a break from something, there is an implication that it is a burden you are happy to shrug off. In contrast to that, a holiday means that there is a fleeting (after all holidays can’t last forever) opportunity on the calendar. A subtle point, perhaps, but subtleties can have big impact.

So, as students come to the end of their school year, I don’t want to wish them a happy vacation. Anyone with a few unencumbered days should have plans to execute, ideas to implement, and dreams to realize. If imaginations are too shriveled to think beyond the ordinary, I would suggest tossing the electronics and investing in copies of some classic British children’s literature like that of Richmal Crompton, Enid Blyton, E. Nesbit, and of course, Arthur Ransome. Expand your vocabulary as you read them aloud to your children on a blanket at the beach or park. After all, how often do holidays come around?

 

Take Time to Make Time

June 3rd, 2019 Posted by Homeschooling, Practical Parenting, Your Mother's Guidance 4 comments

A ‘Your Mother’s Guidance’ post by Rebecca Masinter

Our son celebrated his bar-mitzvah this past Shabbat, which included reading aloud in synagogue from the weekly Torah portion. His portion began with the words,  “If you walk in the way of my laws,” Leviticus 26:3.  The obvious question is why the Torah uses the word  ‘walk’?  Ancient Jewish wisdom says that this phrase is referring to Torah study.  How is walking part of studying Torah? 

We can learn an answer to this question from the behavior of King David.  David, like mothers, had many competing demands on his time.  He was the king of the nation and had national, political and military decisions to make.  He was also a Jew who carried his own personal obligation of Torah and self-development.  How did he balance the competing demands? 

The answer is that each morning instead of just waking up and starting to tackle his to-do items, King David would go to the Torah study hall to gather his thoughts.  There, in the study hall, he would organize his schedule for the day and decide how much time to devote in each part of the day to each of his responsibilities.  By making these scheduling decisions in the inspiring atmosphere of the study hall he was able to prioritize more effectively and leave more time for Torah study in his day than he would otherwise have had.  So in essence, walking to the appropriate place to plan his schedule led to more spirituality in his day. This is one of the reasons that walking in the ways of God is the introduction to this section of the Torah.

You and I probably can’t go to a study hall as we plan our day each morning with our cups of coffee.  But we can learn not only the importance of planning our days and schedules but doing it within the context of a spiritual connection. This will help us align our priorities correctly and schedule accordingly.  For me, spending time each morning, not just praying, but taking a few minutes in my room for what my children call, “Mommy’s private prayers,” gives me a chance to connect to God, orient, and center myself, and think through my day with my head in the right space.  When I come out from my private time I feel more prepared to tackle the many items on my calendar for the day wisely and well. 

We can all learn this lesson: taking the time to plan our daily schedules within a context of connection to God will enable us to focus on what is truly important to us and must be in our schedule, and which items can be dropped or delayed on each day.

Book Review: A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen

May 19th, 2019 Posted by Practical Parenting, Reading Recommendations No Comment yet

At the time a new movie about Marie Antoinette was released, our high-school age daughter made a comment to a friend about the Queen’s youth at the time of her dramatic encounter with the guillotine. Her friend was quite peeved at how our daughter had ruined the movie by giving away the ending.

Ignorance of history portends unhappiness for a civilization. If citizens are able to internalize the concept that, “There is nothing new under the sun,” by recognizing repeated trends and ideas, they are less vulnerable to the “newest and greatest idea” that falsely promises to provide universal freedom, peace and prosperity.

This is one reason that boring history tomes are a menace. History that is dry and lifeless makes no impression. Good historical fiction that creates imaginary characters while faithfully presenting events is a valuable resource. The minute that anyone, whether Marie Antoinette or the family that grew the wheat used in the royal kitchen, catches one’s imagination, the important occurrences of their lives and the applicable dates and locations become unforgettable.

With this in mind, I’d like to recommend a book for pre-teens and up entitled, A Night Divided. The story starts in 1961, on the night that the Berlin Wall dividing East and West Germany was erected. Eight-year-old Gerta, her fourteen-year-old brother and mother are trapped in their home in the East while another brother and their father are on the other side, aware that returning home is no longer an option due to their political leanings. The bulk of the book takes place four years down the road as Gerta and her brother begin plotting to escape to the West and reunite their family.

Read as an adventure story, the book is gripping. Adding some historical context gives it great value. It is a good sign that even in our times, this book received positive reviews from various newspapers and organizations that prefer not to focus on the evils of Communism.  I would recommend either reading A Night Divided aloud or at least discussing it with children after they have finished it, making sure they understand that the depiction of control and fear exerted by the East German Communists, as well as the dreariness of life under their rule, was real. 

Timing Matters

May 13th, 2019 Posted by Practical Parenting, Your Mother's Guidance 1 comment

A ‘Your Mother’s Guidance’ post by Rebecca Masinter

According to the ancient Jewish divisions, chapter 16:1 begins a new portion in the book of Leviticus.  The verse begins, “And God spoke to Moses after the death of Aharon’s two sons, when they approached before God and they died.”  Ancient Jewish wisdom asks why the Torah tells us that the instruction that will follow was given after Aharon’s sons died. It answers with an allegory about a patient receiving detailed instructions from a doctor. The patient might be tempted to ignore them. However, if the patient is told, “These are your instructions, follow them or else you will die just like Mr. Ploni died,” he will feel the warning more viscerally and is more likely to obey orders. 

The day after the death of Aharon’s sons was the right time to communicate relevant laws to future priests.  There are right times and wrong times to try and instruct or correct people.  It’s interesting that one of the sins of Nadav and Avihu was their inability to wait for life to unfold in the right time.  These sons of Aharon used to say to each other, “When will these old men, Moses and Aharon, die so we can be the leaders of the nation?”  That time would have come eventually, but they were unable to appreciate that there are wrong times and right times and to wait until the time was right.

I’d also like to point out that the lesson God instructs the priests right at this time, adjacent to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, is one of timing, “…he should not come at all times into the Sanctuary.” Rather, there is a specific time on the specific day of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) when it is the right time.

What can we mothers learn from this?  Timing matters.  Sometimes we want to tell our child something, to correct them or direct them, and we feel the urge to say it now because we want the relief of unloading our pent up emotions.  But that is often not the right time to speak.  Rather, we should have patience and wait for the time to be right before we correct or direct. We need to do it at the right time for our child when they can listen and learn in the best way.

I will end with the reminder of what we already know; connection precedes direction.  Almost always, if not always, the best time to teach our children is when they feel connected to us, in a state of closeness and love.  When we tap into our loving relationship with our children, when our children feel close to us, that is the best time to teach.  I don’t know if this is the Torah’s message here, but I will note that the context of this discussion is the Yom Kippur service, the day that we are closest and can come closest, into the Holy of Holies, to God.

For today, let’s try to find the right times and try to create the right times of loving connection before we direct or correct our children.

4 Sons = 1 Man (or Woman)

May 5th, 2019 Posted by Practical Parenting, Your Mother's Guidance No Comment yet

As part of the Passover Seder (program) we speak of four sons, each of whom is found in Scripture.  They are described as the wise son, the evil son, the simple son, and the son who doesn’t know how to ask.  Each one’s questions, or lack of them, needs to elicit an individually crafted response from parents. My father explains at each seder that these aren’t four distinct people sitting around some family’s Seder; rather these are characteristics that make up each of us.  We all have a bit of each type of child in us, and different people have different percentages of each of the four sons in their makeup.  Why is this important to us now?

Within many families, regardless of whether the parents initiate this or not, the children see themselves in defined and labeled ways.  “I’m the studious one. She’s the funny one.  He’s the responsible one.  She’s the creative one.” Maybe also with negative terms: “I’m the lazy one.  He’s the rebellious one.  She’s the messy one.”  The Jewish approach is to reject such labels.  There aren’t four different sons;  each human being has aspects of all types!  Sometimes I study, sometimes I laze around.  Sometimes I act responsibly and sometimes I make messes.  The Torah viewpoint is nuanced, and we have different specific responses given to each of the four sons because at different times we all need one or another of those answers.  Sometimes we need a metaphorical punch in the teeth and sometimes we need someone else to take the lead and guide us through an issue we don’t even recognize as problematic on our own.  Each of us and each of our children are individuals made up of many components and qualities. We can recognize and celebrate our nuances instead of defining and confining ourselves or others into narrow boxes. 

I’d like to suggest that Passover and other holidays are a good time to look at our children and at ourselves with this viewpoint in mind.  Often on these special occasions we spend time with our extended families. When adult siblings get together, sometimes a funny thing happens.  We may find ourselves playing out narrow roles that we assigned ourselves and our siblings years ago.  It can be so frustrating to feel that you’re a mature adult who’s grown out of her childhood roles, and then you go back to your childhood home and find yourself reacting to each other the same way you did 10 years ago!  Yes, you may have seen yourself or been seen as a certain way back then, but now we can put on the lenses of the Passover Haggadah to appreciate that we aren’t one way or another.  Labels don’t fit people!  We are nuanced composites of many different attributes, that shine or glare in different ways at different times.

When we can appreciate the four sons in each of us and the four sons in each of our children and extended family members, we can let go of our old rigid confining ideas, and truly move into the freedom of Passover.

Faith in the Future: the Musical

April 28th, 2019 Posted by Practical Parenting, Your Mother's Guidance 1 comment

A ‘Your Mother’s Guidance’ post by Rebecca Masinter

In Exodus 15:20,  Miriam leads the Jewish women in song after the splitting of the Red Sea.  Actually, if you look at the verses closely, she started while still in the middle of the sea!  And it wasn’t just singing: these women had musical instruments ready for just this moment!

Imagine if you have to leave your home—not an apartment you’ve been in for a few months, but a home you and your family have lived in for over 200 years!  You are in a huge rush—so huge that the dough you’ve just finished kneading has no time to rise.  What will you take with you?  I can think of many things I would want to take, and honestly, musical instruments don’t even make the it onto the top 20!  Why did the women take instruments?  The great transmitter of ancient Jewish wisdom, Rashi (1040-1105),  tells us they were so sure Hashem would perform miracles for them and they would want to sing their thanks, so they prepared accordingly.  Amazing, isn’t it?

But let’s look at Miriam’s life a little more closely.  This isn’t the first time we’ve heard of her.

As a young child, Miriam saw that the pain and distress of the Jewish people had led to husbands and wives separating.  We’re told she saw that there would be a redemption and there would be a redeemer born, and convinced her father that Jewish couples had to continue building for that future even while today looked dark.

When Moses was born, the whole house filled with light.  Everyone knew he was special. Yet when it came time for him to be put in the river, who is the only one who stayed with him to watch and see what would become of him?  Miriam, the person who excelled at seeing a glorious future even in the darkest moments.

The women singing with their drums and flutes, led by Miriam, were exemplifying confident faith—looking with confidence into the future and being sure that the future was one of glorious redemption.

This is the legacy we have inherited and this is the one we need as we raise our children.  It can be easy to get stuck in the moment with our children and feel frustrated at whatever difficult stage we are currently dealing with.  In truth though, we need to look into the future with confident faith, and have the vision and faith to see our children in the future as adults, where the exact same qualities that are so exasperating right now, can be their greatest strengths.

My mother often tells of reading a story from Natan Sharansky’s mother. His mother shared that as a child he was so stubborn and strong-willed that he would gladly remain in the corner all day instead of apologizing for whatever he had done.  I’m sure that was incredibly frustrating for his mother—we’ve all dealt with stubbornness and it isn’t easy.  Imagine though if his mother would have known how his stubbornness would serve him and the Jewish people as an adult when he spent over 9 years in the Soviet Gulag as a prisoner of conscience! 

Confident faith requires us to look beyond the here and now and see the potential for the future.

This is true both in viewing our children’s inherent qualities and also to keep in mind as we make decisions about how to raise them.  It’s crucial that we look beyond the short term and envision the beautiful future which will come from each child and each situation.  This is the gift of confident faith with which we have been blessed.

Helicopter Mom – Me?

April 22nd, 2019 Posted by Homeschooling, Practical Parenting 5 comments

If there is one thing that, until now, I have never been accused of, it is being a helicopter parent. If anything, more than a few of our children’s friends’ parents thought that my husband and I allowed our children too much independence. One of our daughters was incredibly upset that we did not sign her up for SAT review classes or care enough about her grades once she attended a ‘real’ high school.

Yet, as homeschooling increases in the United Kingdom, one British columnist has labeled me, by association and after the fact,  a “militant,” “arrogant,” and “controlling” mother who homeschooled to “dominate and diminish” my children. Wow!

To be fair, the author, Janet Street-Porter is willing to debate home-schooling mothers she knows and works with. Her strong language seems to more headline-grabbing than actually insulting. However, I think it is worth analyzing and rebutting her arguments.

While homeschooling has become rather mainstream in the United States, that isn’t so for much of the rest of the world. It is highly regulated in some countries and illegal in others, most notably Germany. When I was teaching my children, the most frequent accusation hurled at us was that we were hampering their socialization skills. That was laughable If you knew our outgoing children and the many friendships and relationships they had, but that tired allegation didn’t even make it into this article.

Instead, the article’s slant is the damage caused to British society in general and their  children in particular by parents take them out of the system. Ms. Street-Porter contends that those who don’t feel the school system is satisfactory from an educational point of view are  selfish to care only for our children rather than working within the system to improve academics for all. I admittedly am not familiar with British bureaucracy, but if it is anything like America, we’re not talking a fix that will be accomplished within the schooling lifetime of any student today.  Things are that bad and the status quo is too entrenched. I know many homeschooling parents who actively work to improve education on a community and national level. Doing the best for one’s own child doesn’t mean that you don’t care about anyone else’s.

Another accusation hurled at homeschooling parents in this article was a reluctance to embrace the necessity of discipline. Again, unless British schools are complete opposites from American ones, most homeschooling families are far more disciplined than classrooms, not less. Parents who are disorganized wimps can scrape by when their kids are out of the house for many hours a day. When the kids are always home, structure and routine usually co-exist with learning and play.

As for the recommendation that children must learn to handle bullying and that homeschooling to avoid it will reduce children’s resilience and ability to get along with others, I think that is completely misguided. Most parents that I know who homeschool in response to classroom, school bus and schoolyard bullying start out as reluctant homeschoolers.  They have worked with their children, the teachers and administration to try to solve the problem, all to no avail. They are making a difficult decision not to sacrifice their children’s emotional health.

The article closes with this paragraph: “Sadly, too many modern parents want to control every aspect of their children’s lives – monitoring their movements via special apps, calling them every few hours to make sure they are “safe”. Home-schooling is just another form of insidious control.”

One of the easiest ways to monitor your child is to put them in a controlled environment for most of their waking hours. In other words, send them to school. My children and many of their homeschooling peers were far more independent and had a wider variety of activities than their friends who marched in lock-step with twenty or so other children of precisely their own age. Dominating and diminishing my children? I prefer to think of homeschooling as assisting my children in reaching their full potential; propelling them aloft rather than helicoptering over them.

What’s Right with the Teenage Mind and Wrong with Society

April 16th, 2019 Posted by Practical Parenting No Comment yet

A Practical Parenting Golden Oldie: 

Thinking “I told you so” is gratifying. Saying it might be crass, but thinking it feels pretty good. Reading a Wall Street Journal article entitled, What’s Wrong with the Teenage Mind? I definitely underwent an “I told you so” moment.  My husband and I tried as best we could to structure our children’s upbringing according to 3,000 year old Torah principles rather than to the latest issue of Psychology Today. After all, when the newest fad passes you don’t get a chance to press “rewind”. For instance, if you teach your children to call you by your first name when the currently reigning psychologist explains how that will foster closeness, you will struggle to regain lost authority five years later when the most recently crowned psychologists reject that reasoning. 

One commonly accepted view that my husband and I disregarded was a prevalent concept of “adolescence.” We did not accept it as an inevitable stage during which our teenagers would automatically behave recklessly because their prefrontal cortex wouldn’t fully develop until a few years later.  We certainly expected their judgment to improve as they matured, but we were never tempted to excuse destructive, impulsive behavior by blaming it on biology. We anticipated their making proper choices and overwhelmingly, they delivered.

The author of the WSJ article cites the latest studies showing that real life experiences drive the maturation of the impulse controlling parts of the brain. She mentions how cultural psychologist Barbara Rogoff studied Guatemalan Indians and found that their children could handle machetes quite competently. Yet western teenagers basically sit in classrooms, an activity which often starts when they are toddlers and continues for years on end. They may very well be acquiring information; they are not acquiring wisdom. Wisdom means understanding how the world really works. It comes from interacting with people and things, slowly developing a variety of skills. This is best achieved with a mentor who gradually accords his or her disciple greater independence. Information has potential value, but activating its potential means applying, practicing, testing, reassessing and utilizing the raw data.

As our children grew, we helped them develop skills. At tender years they worked in the kitchen, using the stove and sharp knives at ages which would have made Child Protective Services uneasy.  They learned to read charts and check the gauges in a boat’s engine room, to care for infants and toddlers, to do their own laundry and to earn money in ways which probably didn’t meet child labor laws. In varying degrees they learned to sew and work with wood and how to use public transportation and navigate bureaucracies. They studied as well, but book learning and safe, cocooned adult-directed activities didn’t consume their entire time. As they proved themselves capable of shouldering responsibility we gave them more freedom, and for the most part their teenage years were a delight.

While discussing the later arrival of impulse-control in today’s times, the author of the above article also says, “…for reasons that are somewhat mysterious, puberty is now kicking in at an earlier and earlier age. “ For those of you who don’t have time to wait for the next psychological revelation to explain the mysterious reasons for the earlier onset of puberty, let me suggest an important component.  I believe that just as our actions influence our brain development in the prefrontal cortex, they also influence our hormones.

As a society we now give our children less and less freedom to roam and ramble and to push their physical limits. We provide them with an increasing number of electronic gadgets keeping them entertained and isolated in the home rather than playing in the streets. We organize their sports, arts and learning rather than allowing them independence. We do this (in my opinion usually to a much greater degree than is necessary) in the name of protecting them from the dangers which lurk outside. But at the same time we expose them to levels of sexuality which would have ranked as pornography in earlier times. We dress five year old girls like tramps and think it’s cute when little boys learn to parrot lewd expressions. This past week I was in a hotel room and flipped through TV stations. Three minutes of a popular show aimed at pre-teens were so brazen that I couldn’t watch it.  We force our children to lose their innocence in sexual education classes and bombard them with too much information as mommy and daddy host a revolving door through which boyfriends and girlfriends pass. We force intimate, private actions onto a public stage and we push our children into front row seats.  Lacking a shared moral compass in our society we contribute to early puberty with premature and excessive exposure to sexuality.

There may be satisfaction in seeing the world come to accept something which I never doubted. But I would gladly give up that satisfaction and instead be part of a correct-thinking community. It is incredibly difficult to defy the downward gravity of a society bent on devolution. Those of us who believe in timeless truths rather than transitory trends have a hard path to hoe – preferably shoulder to shoulder with our children as we guide them along.

Originally published Feb. 8, 2012

What Do You Do?

April 10th, 2019 Posted by Practical Parenting, Your Mother's Guidance 2 comments

A ‘Your Mother’s Guidance’ post by Rebecca Masinter

I was thinking about chapter 40 in the book of Exodus. Ancient Jewish wisdom describes how  God wanted to give Moses the honor of assembling the Tabernacle because he hadn’t been involved in the contribution and building process.  The words used by one transmitter are, “she’lo asa Moses shum melacha b’Mishkan,”  “for Moses had not done any work for the Tabernacle.”  Excuse me?

Is there any person, perhaps even including the main craftsman, Betzalel, who was more directly involved in building the Tabernacle than Moses?  Who was it who communicated every instruction from God regarding the donations for and the construction of the Tabernacle? Who carved and brought us the two tablets which are the center point of the Tabernacle?  If you look at the Scripture describing the Tabernacle, Moses is part of it over and over and over.

What can it mean when ancient Jewish wisdom says, “Moses hadn’t done any work for the Tabernacle.”?

I have not yet learned an answer to this question.  Nonetheless, here is what I do have for you.  Doesn’t this scenario sound somewhat familiar?  Can you think of anyone you know who may at times feel that they aren’t doing great things? Accomplishing what they could? That they are somewhat anonymous in the larger world?  And yet… this person is behind everyone else’s accomplishments !

How many times does the wife and mother in a family feel that everyone else is doing things, stretching, growing, and they are only the facilitators in the background?  We register our kids for activities and lessons, drive them there, and help them practice their new skills.  Who’s the one noticeably accomplishing?  The child obviously—we just provide support.

We run our homes and provide the background support that allows our husbands to grow in their careers and life paths.  When we do our job well, it allows everyone else to do their jobs well, but to an uneducated eye it may seem as if we’re doing nothing while everyone else is doing everything.  It is even possible to look at ourselves and our Tabernacles and think, “I haven’t done anything!”

This struck me last night as I was listening to my son practicing his Torah reading (again) for his Bar Mitzvah. Please God, on that day he will be up in front of the congregation reading the Torah for the whole community.  It may look as if I had nothing to do with it.  But truly, I will be behind his success just as Moses was behind each part of the Tabernacle. Yet in a way, it will look to those present as it looked in the desert—as if Moses, “had not done any work for the Tabernacle.”

Maybe that is why Moses gets the final task of actually putting it all together—the final step of creating a Tabernacle where before there wasn’t any structure.  Yes, he wasn’t directly involved in contributing or building, but in reality he was everywhere and everything.  And we are the same.  We mothers may sometimes feel that we’re not accomplishing, but, just like Moses and the Tabernacle, we are really the force behind everything that everyone else in our family accomplishes.

Do You Think?

April 8th, 2019 Posted by Homeschooling, Practical Parenting No Comment yet

As parents, we make thousands of decisions for our children’s lives. For a homeschooling mother that number grows exponentially. I think many of us are a bit hard on ourselves, beating ourselves up for choices that, in retrospect, we wish we had made differently. So, it is really rewarding to get positive feedback about something we did and I got just such feedback last week.

On of our daughters is currently studying in a selective and difficult program while earning a highly specialized nursing degree. Last week, she mentioned an advantage she has over her peers in the way that she approaches her studies. As a student in our homeschooling house and then during a year of Bible study in Jerusalem, she was trained to ask questions. She memorized great quantities of material and needed to know many facts, but that was the starting point, not the end goal.

She learned to be constantly on the lookout for conflicting information and anomalies. Studying different approaches to the same topic and then integrating them was a consistent theme. She was encouraged to see the  big picture rather than compartmentalizing information—how did the literature of a certain time and place interact with the history and scientific discoveries taking place? Why is this rare Hebrew word used only in this chapter of the book of Exodus and again in Deuteronomy?  She was encouraged to look critically at ideas and the background of those who made them. 

As our children grew and applied for certain scholarships or schools, we needed to fill out forms detailing what our children had covered in a variety of standard subjects such as English or math. The powers-that-be cared how many hours of physical education they had and whether they were fluent in more than one language. Yet, we were never asked whether our children loved seeking knowledge and if they had tools to do so.

Our daughter’s comment reminded me of the many logic puzzles, cryptograms, ciphers and thinking games we spent time on when they were children. I’m not sure whether I considered those part of “school” or more part of life. Truly, one of the reasons we homeschooled was to blur that distinction. I’m tickled that the benefits of those critical thinking skills are being felt today.

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