Thursday, June 30, 2011

Book Review: Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, by Bryan Caplan

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You ThinkThis book has changed my life. I think the title is unfortunate because it can give people the wrong idea, but I’m glad I saw past that misnomer. It came at just the right time, too. I have recently been thinking a lot about all the parenting books I’ve read and wondering just how effective their techniques really are. I mean, if “effective” means that they work to change the targeted behavior, then I would say most techniques that make it into a published book probably fit the bill. But I’ve found myself wondering about the long-term outcomes of these things. Do they even make a difference in the long run? My main concerns are about long-term behavior outcomes as well as the long-term effects of these things on my kids’ relationships with me. (You know, am I going to elicit compliance now, only to have my kids resent me later?)

This book has helped me answer those questions. Caplan, an economist, uses twin and adoption research to make his argument that parents are “charging” themselves too much for the “commodity” that is children. If we stopped wasting energy trying to control our kids’ development in areas where we really don’t have much influence, we would have the energy to happily and effectively raise more children (which would actually feel like a good and enjoyable thing if we weren't overextending ourselves).

Basically, twin and adoption research shows that parenting has very little, if any, effect on what our children become. Adopted children resemble their adoptive families when they’re little, but the older they get, the more they become like their biological families, whom they’ve never met. Identical twins raised separately are far more similar to each other than they are to their adoptive siblings. Caplan sums it up best with this analogy: “Instead of thinking of children as lumps of clay for parents to mold, we should think of them as plastic that flexes in response to pressure—and pops back to its original shape once the pressure is released.”

With this knowledge in hand, I’ve been able to let go of some of the exhausting techniques intended to mold my kids into something and instill habits that apparently won’t stick anyway, and instead just enjoy them. They’re going to be who they’re going to be (barring extremes like abuse or neglect, of course) so why bust my hump trying to make them something they’re not? Obviously, we have to teach our kids to be respectful and responsible but most of that is taught through example. I just love this book for lifting a foolish burden that I placed on my shoulders when my daughter was born four years ago. I'm so much happier as a parent, and my daughter is better-behaved. Go figure. Perhaps it's because I'm not up in her business all day, trying to mold and shape her?

All that said, I didn’t care for the dialogues in the last section of the book. I ended up skipping them because they were kind of awkward to read and they just reiterated what was already said. So the book could have been significantly shorter.

Even so, best parenting book ever. I wish I had read this one first.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Our Favorite Things: Little Kids...Draw!

First of all, I realize I have been a total slacker. I think it all started when I read a wonderful book called, Selfish Reasons to Have More Children (review to come). Among other things, the book really convinced me to relax and take it easy as a parent--a good thing! Unfortunately, that "take it easy" attitude also pervaded the rest of my life, including my commitment to blogging. And you know what? I'm totally fine with that. I think it's good to take a break from our self-inflicted deadlines and commitments every now and then. And I did it at the perfect time, too, because the weather in Virginia has been absolutely perfect and we've been spending all our time outside. All of my blog posts would have started sounding the same anyway.

But alas, I'm ready to strike a balance between taking it easy and being productive.

Enjoy these trace-and-draw worksheets developed by teachersAnd to kick things off, I want to rave about another of my favorite things: Little Kids...Draw! It is yet another of my awesome finds from Scholastic Dollar Deals. Norah loves to draw and I love her to draw, so she has easy access to paper and whatever drawing medium her little heart desires: pencils, colored pencils, crayons, markers, chalk, etc.  Most of her time is spent drawing whatever strikes her fancy but occasionally I like to show her simple ways to draw new things. This book is just the ticket. It starts out with simple tracing activities and eventually progresses to pages like this:
There are pictures to go with most early childhood themes so I just printed all of mine off and slipped them into the appropriate file. And here is Norah's masterpiece:
She was delighted that she drew a horse (her current obsession--more specifically, the obsession is with ponies) all by herself! I highly recommend this book or one like it, and there are a lot like it. I especially like this one, though, because of how it coordinates with the themes we have been playing with.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

More than a Book Review: Dumbing Us Down, by John Taylor Gatto

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory SchoolingI don’t know why it has taken me this long to finally read this book. John Taylor Gatto is sort of an icon among homeschoolers and now I know why. He had a long and successful career as a teacher in the New York City public schools. He was named NYC Teacher of the Year and New York State Teacher of the Year. Dumbing Us Down includes the speeches he delivered on those occasions (yep, he’s gutsy) among others.

It’s a quick and engaging read—I read it in one day, sitting outside watching my kids play. Now, the very act of homeschooling, or even considering it, obviously demonstrates a tendency to question cultural norms, but there’s a possibility that this book expanded my “radical” homeschool thinking even more. It made me really question what most of us have come to accept as a normal way of educating children.

I noticed three themes in Gatto’s speeches and essays: the effects of institutionalized schooling on community, family, and real learning.

He says we should de-certify teaching. Interesting. (Honestly, when did we decide that only experts could teach multiplication? I can teach my kid shapes, colors, letters, counting, and maybe reading but she turns five years old and suddenly I’m no longer qualified? So I have to send her off to the institution, to the experts? Huh?) In Gatto’s mind, all adults are responsible for educating the children in their community.

But wait. What community?

“Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent: nobody talks to them anymore, and without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present.”

This is perhaps the most profound idea I found in this book, the emphasis on the interaction of people of all ages resulting in richer lives for all of us. All adults should be responsible for educating children. But the interaction of children with older people isn’t just a teaching opportunity. It’s also an opportunity to enrich the lives of both, to broaden their daily experiences and their daily emotions.  Why do we insist on separating them?

Gatto also criticizes institutionalized schooling for robbing families of the time to actually grow as families. After spending seven hours at school and then coming home to do a couple more hours of homework (and don’t forget the time getting ready and then getting to and from school), when does a family develop?

Aside from family time, why should my children spend seven hours a day closed up in a classroom, just so they can come home and spend two more hours doing homework? Is seven hours really not enough? They have to come home and do more?

And then the day is over.

This brings me to Gatto’s focus on real learning:

“Two institutions at present control our children’s lives: television and schooling, in that order. Both of these reduce the world of wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice to a never-ending, nonstop abstraction. In centuries past, the time of childhood and adolescence would have been occupied in real work, real charity, real adventures, and the realistic search for mentors who might teach what you really wanted to learn.”

When are kids supposed to learn from real experiences, out in real places? Because school is not a real place. It is a place designed to supposedly prepare children for the “real world”. But the school itself is an artificial environment. It’s a place where children are artificially grouped by age (something that doesn’t happen anywhere else in life). It’s a place where almost everything is learned by reading about it or listening to a lecture about it or watching a movie about it—almost never by actually doing it or seeing it in real life. The best times to see and do in real life are passing by while kids sit in these classrooms listening to somebody drone on about what’s going on out there.

Tweaking the educational system in an attempt to fix it is laughable (though I don’t really find the problem itself funny). After watching Waiting for Superman and then reading this book—taking in a “big picture” view of the problems with the system—it really is ludicrous to think that if we just get the “right” computers in the classrooms, we can fix the problem. Or maybe if we put Smart Boards in every classroom. Or maybe if we choose the “right” curriculum. It’s a mess. Tweaking won’t fix it.

But John Taylor Gatto gives us some basic criteria for reform:

Any reform in schooling has to deal with its absurdities.

“It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class. That system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety.

“It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong for every day of your natural youth in an institution that allows you no privacy and even follows you into the sanctuary of your home, demanding that you do its ‘homework’.”

I’m opting out.

Disclaimer: John Taylor Gatto’s books are best read as persuasive writing. He does make a couple uncited claims, one of which I know is a little crazy (“Shall we ignore the evidence that drug addiction, alcoholism, teenage suicide, divorce, and other despairs are pathologies of the prosperous much more than they are of the poor?” Actually, with the possible exception of teenage suicide, these things are much more common among the poor.) Still, most of his writing isn’t about facts or statistics—it’s just a very persuasive opinion.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Outdoor Hour Challenge #2

Outdoor Hour Challenge #2 challenged us to focus on our senses during our nature walk and then discuss them afterward. We decided to do our walk along one of our beautiful walking trails that leads to our favorite pond. Of course most of the fun happened along the way.

Something we saw: ant hill
 Something we smelled: lilac bush (my favorite!)

 Something Norah felt: a tickly caterpillar. She picked him up on a stick and carried him for several minutes and then when he fell off her arm without her seeing, she was devastated. We looked for him everywhere but to no avail.
 Something else we saw: a caterpillar web (ew).
Something we heard: lots of birds. (But I have no pictures, because hey, we heard them.)

 Nature journal page. We dipped our lilac in some purple paint and dabbed it on the paper. Then Norah painted a stem and leaves. (How do you like all the capital "L" attempts?)



Monday, April 25, 2011

Screen-Free Update

Our Screen-Free Week was semi-successful. I did a great job keeping Norah screen-free (Ezra always is, so no problems there). She didn't watch any videos, but then, she rarely does anyway. That wasn't much of a challenge. The real problem was me. I didn't see it coming. I can honestly go for weeks without watching so much as a single episode on Hulu (we don't have any cable). And I even did pretty well with the internet thing. Unfortunately, Andrew and I recently discovered the CBS drama, "The Good Wife" and we just happened to get two DVDs of it this week from Netflix. We finally decided to treat Screen-Free Week like Ramadan--only in effect from sun up to sun down. So yeah, I watched a lot of "The Good Wife" this week. Truly shameful (and a bit ironic).
Aside from my pathetic failure, we did almost everything on my screen-free list.

We went to the farm and saw all these super cute baby animals.

Kids
 Chicks
 Piglets
 And some non-babies, like these chickens.
 And a pig who was Norah's absolute favorite because he ate weeds out of her hand. (She loves to feed animals.)
We also worked in our garden a little, did a lot of bird watching at the observatory (aka, our kitchen window), went to the park, played with play dough, played outside A LOT, and I finally read Dumbing Us Down, by John Taylor Gatto (review to come). Basically, it was a typical week with an inordinate amount of screen time for the adults.

Whatever. I'm happy to be back from the screen-free abyss. I absolutely believe in limited screen time but I hate feeling like I can't use the tools that are sitting on a desk right in front of my face. Look, I NEED the internet. There. I said it.

And now, for some guilt-free viewing of "The Good Wife". Seriously, I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Shhh...I'm not here

I know it's Screen-Free Week and I'm not supposed to be blogging but I just had to share this super cute treat we made today. Sunday would be too late to post it for other people to enjoy during their Easter festivities.

We've been learning about farm animals this week AND it is obviously almost Easter...so we built a no-bake cookie nest using chow mein noodles, lined it with coconut grass, and filled it with a Peeps chick and her jelly bean eggs. I LOVE it!
Here's the recipe:
1 cup sugar
2 Tbsp cocoa
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup peanut butter
2 cups chow mein noodles

Combine sugar, cocoa, butter, and milk in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil for 1 minute (you need to time this because it needs to be fairly precise), stirring constantly. Remove from heat and fold in remaining ingredients. Drop in clumps on wax paper and shape into nests. Let nests harden and fill them with green coconut, jelly beans, and a Peeps chick. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Turn off your computer! It's Screen-Free Week

Tomorrow kicks off Screen-Free Week, (hosted by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood), so I won't be updating my blog until April 25th.

Why am I so enthusiastic about this?
  • "American children and adolescents spend 22 to 28 hours per week viewing television, more than any other activity except sleeping. By the age of 70 they will have spent 7 to 10 years of their lives watching TV."-- The Kaiser Family Foundation
  • On average, preschool children spend 32 hours per week with screen media.
  • Including multi-tasking, children ages 8-18 spend an average of 4 1/2 hours per day watching television, 1 1/2 hours using computers, and more than an hour playing video games.
  • Limiting exposure to television during the first 4 years of life may decrease children's interest in it in later years.
I have really strong feelings about limiting screen time in general. There are times almost daily that I think it would be easier to just put on a movie, and every now and then I do it. But I really love watching my daughter play with her blocks, or make dinner for her stuffed animals, or run around outside spraying everything with a spray bottle. Those are the times that I think to myself, "Wow, look at all that she would not be learning if she were watching TV".

It's so easy as parents, and even as stewards of our own minds, to fall back on TV as an easy way to pass the time. But there's more to life than just passing time, so I really love this week for emphasizing that there are other things to do.

Some of our screen-free plans:
  • Work in the garden
  • Watch birds at our bird feeder. I'm surprised how long my daughter will sit at the window and do this. We checked out some books from the library so we can find out the birds' names.
  • Go to the park
  • Play board games
  • Do puzzles
  • Go to the farm park to see all the baby animals that have been born this spring
  • Play with playdough
  • (For me specifically, read something that isn't on a computer screen)
I encourage everyone to "turn off screens and turn on life" this week (and beyond).

See you next week with an update on how we spent our Screen-Free Week.