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 Smash that outdated idea like a bug and move on with your life.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.

View all my reviews
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.