Saturday, October 24, 2015

Katie's Report Card

The most helpful parenting book I've ever read was written by an educator who hates tests, a critic of our culture's emphasis on punishments and rewards, a father who has the audacity to recommend we listen to our kids rather than scold them when they make mistakes. Here's my full review of Alfie Kohn's excellent parenting book, Unconditional Parenting:

Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and ReasonUnconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most helpful parenting book I've ever read. Education critic Kohn goes into lots of detail, using stories of his own children as examples, which you'll find in the book (and on the DVD lecture video as well), but let me sum up what I got out of it:

Treat your kids with the same patience, love, and respect as you treat your best friends, your most cherished family members, your honored guests. Don't worry about "spoiling" your child. Repeat: do not worry that your kindness will spoil your child. Smash that outdated idea like a bug and move on with your life. Talk less, listen more. Scold less, have problem-solving conversations more. Treat your kiddo the way you would want to be treated, with caring, calmness, and empathy. Trust kids to make their own decisions. When things don't work out, have a discussion about what worked and what didn't work, and what they could have done differently. Worry less about academic achievement and hitting developmental milestones "on time". Remember what it was like to be a kid. Step back and reflect. Don't just assume your kids know you love them unconditionally. Tell your kids you will love them no matter what and that they can talk to you about anything.

Seriously. Parenting is hard. We all need help. I've read lots of parenting advice, and for me, Kohn's words ring the most true.

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Needless to say, Kohn's not a big fan of the type of education most of our kids get in public school. With their budget cuts, especially here in Kansas, public schools often struggle to give our kids the individualized attention they need to build bigger brains and kinder minds. Due to chronic underfunding, public schools over-test, over-lecture, and overlook the potential in most kids. I'd rather see our schools focus on critical and creative thinking rather than on test scores and percentiles and lexiles and all the miles and miles of bureaucratic bullshit kids slog through each day.

But, what can I say? Our kiddo goes to public school. Our kiddo started begging to go to school by the time she was four. Staying at home alone, with no siblings or peers to play with, bored Katie to tears. Even now as a nine-year-old fourth grader, she loves going to school. Most days. Sure, like most kids, Katie also occasionally excels at couch potato-ing: binge watching DanTDM, iHasCupquake, stampylonghead, and other fun, gaming YouTubers. But she's also a big fan of Cosmos, VSauce3, and CrashCourseKids, all three epic educational shows on YouTube.

Katie goes to the public school in our neighborhood. I always told myself that if she begins to show signs of struggling with her public school education, if she gets bored, if she stops thinking for herself, if she asks for a change, I'd take her out and homeschool her, or, more likely since I'm a total slacker, I'd unschool her. Which is kinda what we do now, when Katie's at home. When she's at school, she takes tests and follows rules and has a routine. When she's at home, she's mostly free to explore her own interests, catering to her creative mind. As long as she harms no one.

Neither Katie's father, Will, nor I were gifted students. We're both bright, independent thinkers, but we're also rather unmotivated when it comes to listening to other people's lectures and, you know, remembering to turn in our homework. We're both the youngest siblings in our families, and youngest sibs generally have it the easiest. After a try--or five, in my parents' case--with our older siblings, our parents gave up pushing their kids and pretty much ignored our academic achievement.

Which was good in some ways, and bad in some ways. As life always is.

Neither Will nor I have finished college. Will took a couple of classes that interested him at the community college, but he dropped out when his interests waned. I got my Associate of Arts degree from that same community college. It only took me eleven years to finish that two-year degree.

We're both allergic to hypocritical bullshit, so I can't see how either of us will ever have the leverage to push our daughter academically. How can we encourage her to try hard in school when we never did? All we can tell her is to do her best and we'll love her no matter what. Which, honestly, I think is the best advice parents can give their children.

I loved school until my messy life got in the way. I was sent to Weight Watchers in third grade. In fifth grade I passed out at school one day. Mom took off work to take me to the doctor, who diagnosed me with anorexia nervosa. I missed a lot of school that year, and every year thereafter, dealing with my eating disorders and undiagnosed at the time post-traumatic stress disorder. My grades began to slip. I remember in sixth grade we were sent to different rooms according to our reading level. It was the first year I wasn't in the highest reading level. I felt embarrassed. I thought reading was my thing. From that day forward, I still loved to read, but you'd never know it by looking at my report card. If all I had to do to get an A+ in reading is love to read a ton of books of my own choosing, I'd have been the valedictorian of our school. But "do you love to read" was never a question on our standardized tests. The closest I got to being the valedictorian was sharing a bottle of Boone's Farm with her the summer after graduation. My standards are high when it comes to corrupting the best and brightest minds.

But Katie is not me. It's a difficult fact to remember. Maybe it's because this person used to reside inside of me. Sure, the doctor might have severed the cord connecting us, but I still feel like she is a part of me. And she's not. It's the hardest lesson for mothers to learn, I think. So when Katie talks about her education, the lesson for me is that it's hers and not mine.

Katie's school had an assembly last week to celebrate the end of the first quarter. She was called up in front of everyone to shake the principal's hand and get this certificate stating that she made the all-A honor roll. Because I'm so hesitant to emphasize the importance of grades and test scores and all that academic achievement stuff, I didn't say anything like "way to go!" or "I'm so proud of you" or "good job" or any of that, first thing. I said all that later in our conversation, but when Katie first told me she'd made all-As, the first thing out of my mouth was, "So how did that make you feel?"

I know. I sound like her therapist instead of her mom. But it's honestly what I wanted to know. My goal in parenting is not to have the most certificates of academic achievement from our daughter lining our walls, but to have the most interesting conversations, hardy laughs, and soul-filling hugs from our daughter throughout our time together on this planet. If I were going to write a book about parenting, I'd call it Big Picture Parenting. When you'd open the book, here's what it would say:

Don't worry about the details. Let your kid know you love them no matter what and that they can ask you anything. Be the person you needed when you were a kid, but also be the person your kid needs now.

That's it. Not really much content, sure, but at least it's easy to remember.

So when Katie told me she got called up to shake the principal's hand in front of the assembly and praised for her good grades, I asked how she felt.

Katie said, "I felt like I was going to cry tears of joy."

That's what makes me proud--that my kiddo's life experiences are filled with joy. That, right there, is the highest honor. I took a picture of Katie, smiling proudly as she held up her certificate and commenced to facebragging to all my friends and family on Facebook.

If you're wondering who the little dog is in the picture, that's our foster dog, Señorita. Well, she was our foster dog until we found her family. We kept her comfy for a few days until her owner saw our "found dog" ad in the local paper and gave us a call. The first night Señorita stayed with us, Katie didn't want her to feel lonely, so she pulled out her sleeping bag and slept on the floor next to Señorita's kennel. Well, it's not Señorita's kennel, but you know what I mean. Let's just say she's not the first little dog we've fostered. 

That right there is what makes me proud of our daughter. She's so kind. So caring. So concerned with the welfare of others, whether they're little dogs or her peers in school.

Will and I had our first parent-teacher conference with Katie's fourth grade teacher. She gushed so much about our daughter I felt like I was floating on a nirvana-like cloud of proud parenting when we left her room. 

She's bright.

She's kind.

She's genuine.

That's what Katie's teacher had to say about her. Sure, she showed us her test scores and talked about her grades, but mostly, she beamed as she told us how much she loves our child.

"She's just so kind. And genuine. I mean, lots of kids will help others because they think there's a reward in it for them, but Katie helps others just because she wants to. I've seen other kids drop things and Katie's the first to stop and help them pick things up. She's so genuinely caring. I love her."

They're all things I've thought myself about our daughter over the years, but it's nice to hear a third-party's perspective. I might be a teeny tiny bit partial.

It's these types of stories I like to share about my daughter. Yes, she works hard and follows rules and does her homework and gets good grades. But what makes my heart soar is when I hear how kind she is to others.

OK, one last thing to top off this outlandish bragfest. It's not a great photo. I broke my good camera, so until we can afford to buy a new one, I'm stuck with the crappy camera on my old dumb phone.

Hopefully the content will impress you more than the presentation. Here's a worksheet Katie filled out for us to read at her parent-teacher conference. Below, I'll type out the questions and answers in case you can't read them in the photo. 

Welcome to my conference!
My favorite part of 4th grade is "to read challling (sic) books on Epic because I love reading."
In class, I am really good at "1. Rounding because I have been practicing for one year. 2. Turning in my homework because routines grow on me easily. 3. Reading because I read a lot and my mom read me books since I was a baby."
 My goals for the rest of the year are "1. Read one hundred books on Epic so I can become a better reader. 2. Be friends with everyone so everyone can be happy. 3. Go to subtraction on XtraMath so I can be better at math."
You can help me reach these goals by "practicing math with me, make sure I finsh (sic) one book every day or more, and helping me with life situatiens (sic)." 
When I looked up from reading the worksheet, I smiled. Katie asked,"do you know why I wrote 'helping me with life situations' on my list?"


"Because sometimes I need help with life situations and that helps me do better at school."

Wiser words I've never heard. I'm so proud of our Katie.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Dumplin' by Julie Murphy (book review)

Dumplin'Dumplin' by Julie Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

AH-mazing! So realistic, it felt like I was reading my high school diary. The one I tossed into the dumpster in a fit of embarrassment one day in my late-twenties after I'd made the mistake of re-reading it when I was in a bad place in my life, madly in unrequited-love with someone who could never love me back. I thought I was done with love. Now, I'm middle-aged, madly in love, married to the perfect guy for me. I would love to read over my old diary from high school. To reconnect with my younger self. To see how much I've grown. What was I thinking all those years ago, giving up hope, unable to imagine the love I'd find some day? Tossing out thoughts like they were trash.

Grownups in our society too often ridicule teenage girls. Silly things. So easily upset. So emotional. So moody and self-absorbed and myopic. We brush off their thoughts and feelings as if they are insignificant.

That's what I love so much about young adult fiction. Good young adult fiction, like Dumplin'. It takes teenager's thoughts and feelings seriously.

Guess what? When we're experiencing first love, we all feel awkward. And exhilarated. When we're not kids anymore, but not adults yet either, we're caught between feeling independent from our parents (I am NOT going to be like Mom and Dad!) and wanting to cling to them and have them assure us that everything will be OK.

If you don't remember what it's like to be a teenager, you probably won't appreciate Dumplin' too much. But I do. I feel like I've found my long lost self, and I just can't help but keep smiling and cheering her on.

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Joone by Emily Kate Moon (book review)

JooneJoone by Emily Kate Moon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Me, reading the part about how Joone's dress is filthy and needs to be washed: "I wonder what the word 'filthy' means? Do you know?"

One of the kiddos in Preschool Storytime: "I think it means 'dirty.'"

Me: "That's right! Filthy is another word for dirty. How did you know?"

Kiddo: "I just thought about it with my brain."

We had fun reading this book during Preschool Storytime. This is a great vocabulary building book without being too didactic. The kids could relate to five-year-old Joone who describes an ordinary day in her life. It sparked a great discussion about how important it is for kids to read to their moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas every night before bed, and how many books they deserve if they've had a good day and go to bed early. We had fun playing find Dr. Chin, Joone's pet turtle who likes to ride atop Joone's head and sleep next to her in bed. Great interactive read. Highly recommended.

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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Walking a separate path does not mean you are alone

For nearly two years on Sunday mornings, my daughter Katie and I would haul our night-owl bodies trapped in an early-bird world out of bed so we could go to church. Today I slept in. I don't think Jesus would mind. My relationship with Jesus has never changed, despite the roller coaster ride of a relationship I've had with his followers over the years. I think the great peace hero, Gandhi, says it well:

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” --Mahatma Gandhi

Despite the fact that my experiences with people who call themselves Christians have often been negative, I'm trying to keep an open mind. I'm trying to like Christians, even when they don't act very Christ-like. Actually, I'm trying to go one step further. I'm trying to love them. I think Jesus would approve.
Matthew 5:43-48 The Message (MSG) 
43-47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. 48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
One of the things I find fascinating about religion is how similar most major religions are. For example, compare the love your enemies quote above, taken from a Christian Bible, to this message from The Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhist monks:
Friends and enemies, from The Dalai Lama 
"I must emphasize again that merely thinking that compassion and reason and patience are good will not be enough to develop them. We must wait for difficulties to arise and then attempt to practice them. 
 "And who creates such opportunities? Not our friends, of course, but our enemies. They are the ones who give us the most trouble, So if we truly wish to learn, we should consider enemies to be our best teacher! 
 "For a person who cherishes compassion and love, the practice of tolerance is essential, and for that, an enemy is indispensable. So we should feel grateful to our enemies, for it is they who can best help us develop a tranquil mind! Also, it is often the case in both personal and public life, that with a change in circumstances, enemies become friends."
I've had a falling out with the congregation at the church Katie and I had been attending these past couple of years. Nothing major. Just differing opinions. We walked along the same path for awhile and now it's time for me to take a detour.

I'm not alone.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
--Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken"
It's OK. Church is not the only place to find inspiration to feed my soul. I've been seeing a lot of inspirational messages lately on social media. Here are a few I'd like to share with you.

Here's another one:

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it's true I'm here, and I'm just as strange as you.”
Frida Kahlo

And, this one, from The New York City Fire Department:

I wish all the youth in our nation will have the opportunity to see this video. Please, share it with all the young people you know--gay, straight, bi, trans--we all need to hear this message, to know that we are loved and cherished for who we are, not for how society says we should be.

Here is my message for all the brave peace heroes out there:

Thank you for finding the courage to be who you are and for sharing your stories with others who need to hear this message. Each one of you is an inspiration. Love each other. It's as simple as that.

As the late, great Kurt Vonnegut says: “Many people need desperately to receive this message: 'I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”

Walking a separate path does not mean you are alone. Walk your own path, and respect the paths others walk along.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut (book review)

God Bless You, Mr. RosewaterGod Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not my favorite Vonnegut novel, but worth reading for passages like this one:

"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies-—God damn it, you've got to be kind."

That's what protagonist Eliot Rosewater, a rich philanthropist with PTSD, tells his estranged wife he's going to say at the baptism of two new babies in his community. Which is a great thing to say. But...why not show us the baptism rather than just talking about it on the phone? I felt like I'd metamorphosed into my ninth grade Writers' Workshop teacher as I read this novel. God Bless you, Mr. Vonnegut, but there's too much telling and not enough showing in this novel.

I know. I know. Who am I to criticize one of the best novelists (and human beings) ever, whose other works I admire so? But I kept thinking this would have made an excellent first draft of a great novel. Most of the characters in Rosewater are too two-dimensional for my taste. I like the idea of this novel better than the execution of it.

Recommended for die-hard Vonnegut fans. All others, stick with Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat's Cradle.

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