Friday, October 30, 2009

Parenting Writers on Parenting

The best part of my cruise/conference? Getting to hang around with a lot of other writers who also happen to be parents.

Some of the brave souls (such as Blog Salad's Ron Doyle) brought their children along with them. The rest of us had much more fun. We sat around the karaoke bar, sipped grown-up drinks and swapped stories about parenting.

Can I just say how liberating it was to hear other parenting writers admit that they are not perfect parents? All together, we represented years of parenting expertise. Dozens of children between us. Hundreds of published parenting articles and real-life, real-time access to acknowledged child-rearing experts. We, after all, are the people who write articles such as, "32 Easy Ways to Streamline Your Crazy-Busy Life," "Discipline Tricks That Stick," and "The Secret to Healthier Happier Kids." (All actual article titles from actual magazines.)

And yet, our real lives often look very little like the lives portrayed in the magazines. (Think of us as the parenting equivalent of female fashion models.) Despite knowing the "right" things to do, we yell. (Sometimes within earshot of the neighbors). We give in. We bargain. We plead. We make the same mistakes again and again and again.

We might write the articles that tell you how to balance work and family, but we don't have it all together. We're struggling too, just like everyone else. Our lives - just like yours -- are a constant work in progress. Besides, what article can prepare you for sick kids, cat poop and Internet issues?

The bottom line, as always, is that you are the true expert. We might have access to academic studies, talking heads and statistics, but you know your family and children better than we ever will. You're the only one who can decide, on the spur of the moment, what to do when your preschooler whacks your sick tween on the head with a tractor. (Wait -- that's my life.)

So trust your instincts, and take comfort in the fact that parenting writers are winging it too.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Re-Entering the Real World

If it wasn't for the scar on my finger, I wouldn't believe it myself.

Just a few short days ago, I was snorkeling in the Bahamas. The water was aquamarine, the temperature was balmy and the company, sublime. (The scar, if you're interested, is the result of an overly eager fish. I had fish food; he wanted it!)

For a few short days, I wasn't Jennifer Fink, Mom of Boys; I was Jennifer Fink, Freelance Writer. The boys stayed home with their dad while I joined dozens of other writers aboard the Carnival Imagination for a three-day writer's conference called Cruising for Profits.

And then, I came home. To sick kids (H1N1 has hit our home), cat poop and Internet issues. It was a bit of a transition, to say the least.

But this is what parenting is all about. These are the moments that create a life, that create bonds between parent and child, brother and sister. These moments -- making smoothies for sons who don't feel like eating or wetting washcloths to lay on hot little foreheads -- are more meaningful than anything I experienced on the cruise.

Don't get me wrong: I had a great time conga dancing on the Lido deck and would love, someday, to explore the Caribbean with my sons. Real life, though, isn't always real fun, and that's OK.

I hate watching my boys struggle with high fevers and -- let's be honest -- I hate getting up multiple times a night. I hate stumbling downstairs by feel alone and pouring Motrin by the light of the moon. I hate scratching event after event off my calendar, and I hate waiting and wondering if and when I'll get sick.

But the beauty of these moments is that they allow us to serve one another. In their sickness, my boys become vulnerable and they let me in, just a little more than usual. Those who are healthy express their concern for the sick, doing everything from filling water bottles to delivering pillows. At the end of the day, we realize that, despite our disagreements and bickering, we love each other. The last two days, both of my older boys have listed "family," as one of their Favorite Parts. Usually, they consider "family" the cause of all that's wrong in their worlds.

Stepping out of my life for a few days was absolutely wonderful. Stepping back in is pretty nice as well.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Books for Boys: Fantasy Football Guidebook


'Tis the season -- for football!

Those football fans among you have probably been enjoying the season for weeks now (depending on your team). And the die-hard football fanatics are probably already well-aware of the phenomenon that is fantasy football. For the uninitiated, though, fantasy football is a game in which players "draft" real, live NFL players to be on their fanatasy teams. Their teams then score points based on how the players perform in their real-life football games.

Sam Hendricks, an avid fantasy football player with almost two decades of experience, shares his tips and tricks for fantasy football success in Fantasy Football Guidebook and Fantasy Football Tips. Fantasy Football Guidebook was a Finalist in the 2009 National Indie Excellence Book Awards and the 2008 USA Book News Best Books contest.

If you have a son interested in fantasy football, get him these books. They include everything, from Top 10 Reasons to Play Fantasy Football to 10 Rules of Trading to Observations to Let You Live a Normal Life While Enjoying Fantasy Football. One note: the word is a$$ is included at least once in the book. That's not a deal breaker for me, but something you might want to know before handing the books to your son.

On to the author Q & A!

How did you get interested in fantasy football?

I loved NFL football but became very frustrated when the only matchups on TV were boring contests between weak teams. I wanted more excitement. A fellow aviator from my flying squadron (336th FS-we flew F-15E fighter jets for the USAF) suggested a “new” game called Fantasy Football and from that moment on I was hooked. I loved the ability to have different players from different teams (now I had a reason to watch those boring games because my players were in them and I had a vested interest). The more I played, the more I wanted to win and the more I wanted to learn everything about it. And it gave me a better appreciation of football too.

What's a good age to introduce a boy to fantasy football? Why?

It depends on the maturity of the child, but I would say the earliest is around 7 or 8. At that age parents can share their enjoyment of watching football and the basic math skills of fantasy football can be introduced. Math skills such as addition (points for TDs), subtraction (lose points for INTs) and multiplication (multiple TDs) are easy to show and foster with fantasy football.

Later at around age 12 or 13, the boys are getting more interested in sports and team play. Fantasy football is a great way to teach them good decision-making skills (who do you want vs. who is available at what time), problem-solving (when to switch players to maximize efficiency of the whole team), and also risks vs. rewards (choosing proven veterans over unproven high-priced rookies, etc.) It can be a good teaching tool if implemented correctly. The child learns that "owner" decisions have an immediate impact on the team and one player does not control the game.

A lot of people consider fantasy football "a waste of time," but there's a lot to it. It's fun, of course, but there's also statistics and critical thinking. Your book even includes anatomical info about common football injuries!


Over 30 million people play fantasy football each year and the numbers keep growing. I have seen the media adapt to this ever increasing demographic as well. Most of the highlight/update reports now include players and their statistics at the bottom of the screen. Those statistics have even evolved from simply who scored the TD to how many catches they have, their yardage and TDs or injury status. This is because of the fantasy football fan! So opinion of fantasy football has moved from the obscure “waste of time” to a billion dollar industry as evidenced by the 20+ magazines devoted to this fascinating hobby. Fantasy Football Guidebook is my attempt to provide a comprehensive guide to playing fantasy football.

How can a parent support and nuture their son's interest in football and/or fantasy football?

Parents can spend time with their child enjoying the game while noting the "mathematical" aspects of the game. Also, encourage their child to be a participant, either on an actual football team or in a fantasy football league. By encouraging participation, parents can nurture the interest and will be able to communicate with their child on subjects of mutual interest and appeal. Since Fantasy Football Guidebook came out, I have spoken with hundreds of parents who have told me about the “bonding” time that fantasy football has created. Fathers and sons are fielding teams together as co-managers and spending more time together deciding on strategies (who to start) and watching their players perform.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Reading as Torture

I finally -- finally! -- signed my kids up for swim lessons. It's been a good year and a half, at least, since anyone has had a formal swim lesson because, well, when you have four kids at four different skill levels, scheduling is a devilishly tricky thing. The last time I looked, I would have been at the aquatic center every single night, all week long, just to get each one in. No thanks!

This time, I was lucky. All four boys have lessons on Tuesday, so last night, I was one of many parents congregated in the center lobby.

As always, I was impressed by moms' on-to-go mothering skills. There were moms with picnic suppers. Moms with games. Moms helping kids with homework. We might have all been stuck aquatic limbo, but that wasn't stopping anyone from doing what she needed to do.

Which, in many cases, appeared to be helping young kids with reading homework. From what I saw, it didn't look like fun - for anyone. Generally, Mom was annoyed and/or frustrated and the kid was either bored, frustrated or defeated.

Somehow, I don't think Mom scolding, "Read it again!" while the kid says, "But I read it three times" is very helpful. Maybe the reading wasn't smooth. Maybe the kid missed some words. But forcing someone to read something over and over and over? Something that probably is intellectually way below their level in the first place? (Most easy readers are too dull for toddlers, in my opinion.) How is that going to inspire someone to read?

I saw the same scene repeated, over and over, all around me: Moms browbeating children into doing their assigned reading. It was horrible. "Reading," as I saw it last night, contained no fun, no interest and no promise.

Why do we do this to our children? I understand that reading is an essential life skill. But when we take an essential life skill -- especially one that can be so enlightening and rewarding -- and make it nothing but work, who wants to learn? Why not, instead, nurture a child's natural curiosity? Read him stories that light his imagination? Read together, taking turns? Answer him when he asks what something says?

After what I saw last night, I'm not surprised that so many boys hate to read.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Blue is My Favorite Color

...but not on the walls.

Not that I have anything against blue walls, per say. It's just blue CRAYON on walls that gets to me. Specifically, blue crayon on upstairs hallway walls after 9 pm at night.

I tucked my three- and six-year olds into bed at 8 pm last night. The three-year-old, however, was clearly not ready for sleep. I laid with him awhile, then headed downstairs to clean up the kitchen. I told him I'd be back soon to check on him.

While I was downstairs, I heard a mysterious "swooshing" sound upstairs. It sounded like Boy #2 rummaging his hand through the Lego bin, and considering that Boy #2 was up and creating is his room, that seemed like a plausible explanation. Occam's razor, right?

I. Was. Wrong.

The "swooshing" sound was my three-year-old, unleashing his artistic creativity all over the upstairs walls. And we're not talking a little streak here, a straight line there. We're talking serious scribbles. This boy clearly put some effort into this work. He touched virtually every single surface of the upstairs hall.

It's not the kind of sight that makes a parent's heart leap at 9 pm at night -- not when said parent feels a cold coming on, still has over an hour of work to do and hasn't even finished the supper dishes. It's the kind of sight that makes you wonder why you ever signed up for this parenting gig in the first place.

My three-year-old grinned at me. "Did you do this?" I asked. "I'm sorry," he said. "What are you supposed to write on?" I asked. "Paper," he said. "That's right," I said. "Crayons are for on paper, not walls. Tomorrow you're going to help me clean this up." Then I asked what was, to my mind, the most important question of the moment: "Where's the crayon right now?" "In the garbage," he said.

I led him back to bed, tucked him in again and mentally re-organized my to-do list. The walls would most certainly have to wait.

After a few minutes -- and a promise to return soon to check on him -- I headed downstairs to finish up the kitchen. Again, I heard a strange "swooshing" sound. I hurried upstairs -- and found my 11-year-old son scrubbing the crayon off the walls.

My heart, which a few minutes before, felt defeated, swelled with love. It's those moments -- unexpected tender moments of love -- which sustain parents and given us the strength to keep going. Those moments aren't nearly as common as the blue-crayon-on-the-wall moments, but they're the counterpoint that allows us to maintain some sense of balance. They're the rests in a musical score gone crazy.

Despite me telling him he didn't have to, Boy #1 scrubbed until all the crayon was gone. "It's easier when it's fresh," he told me. "And blue is one of the easiest colors to get off. Red and black are the hardest." Impressed by his knowledge, I asked him "How do you know?"

He smiled. "Don't look in the back of my closet."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Gardasil for Boys?

Should boys receive a vaccination that may prevent cervical cancer?

On the surface, the question seems ridiculous. Boys clearly lack a cervix, so why would boys require protection from cervical cancer?

The question isn't as ridiculous as it seems, though -- and it's one you may be pondering in the near future, given the fact that yesterday the FDA approved Gardasil vaccine for use in boys and young men ages 9-26.

Gardasil protects against HPV, or human papilloma infection. Certain strains of HPV are now known to cause cervical cancer; they also cause gential warts. Currently Gardasil is approved to prevent genital warts in males, although researchers hope that preventing HPV infection in boys will lead to a decrease in female HPV infection as well.

HPV, you see, is a sexually transmitted disease. An extremely common one. Almost all sexually active adults (75-80%) will acquire an HPV infection at some point in time. Most people manage to clear the virus on their own, without any apparent symptoms or complications. A small minority, though, go on to develop genital warts, cervical dysplasia or penile, anal or cervical cancers. No one is exactly sure why some people go on to develop serious complications while others clear the infection with no apparent problem.

In 2006, after extensive testing, the FDA approved the use of Gardasil in young girls. Of course, vaccinating young girls against a sexually tranmitted disease that may or may not cause them problems in later life is not without controversy. Add into the fray the fact that 32 deaths and numerous blood clots were reported after Gardasil vaccination and you can see why a number of parents are hesitant to vaccinate their daughters.

Parents of boys now face the same question. Should your son be vaccinated for a disease that may or may not affect him directly? Right now, the decision is completely up to you. To date, no government recommendations have been made regarding boys and HPV vaccination. (The government is expected to rule on that sometime later this month.)

Harvard researchers, meanwhile, have pointed out that vaccinating boys may be less cost-effective than vaccinating girls. Since girls are disproportionately affected by HPV complications, they say, it makes more sense to concentrate on vaccinating girls, not boys.

Where do I stand on this question? As a woman who's had an HPV infection that led to pre-cancerous cervical changes...that ultimately required treatment with a minor surgical procedure...that affected the ability of my cervix to dilate adequately during my last birth, I'll tell you this: HPV is no laughing matter. If vaccinating my boys means preserving the cervical health of my future daughter-in-laws, well, that's something to consider.

Clearly, I've made no decisions yet. Clearly, I need to know more about the risks, benefits and costs before making a final decision, and I hope that you too will take the time to study the issue carefully before making a decision on behalf of your sons.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Teachable Moment

My new favorite show is Glee, Fox's hit show about a high school show choir. It's over-the-top campy fun featuring teenage angst, a teen pregnancy and musical numbers to die for. It's also a great show to watch with my boys.

Take this week's episode. Head cheerleader (and president of the Chastity Club), Quinn, is pregnant. Her boyfriend, Finn, is overwhelmed but trying hard to do the right thing. But as the dad-to-be, his options are limited. Being the Dad, he says, means you have all of the worry and none of the control.

As a Mom-of-boys, I've often thought about the dilemma faced by teen dads. When a boy gets a girl pregnant, that child is his too, yet his vote is almost never decisive. She is the one carrying the child and therefore the one to decide the fate of the pregnancy. The teenage daddy is in a truly powerless position.

So we talked about that. We talked about the fact the if a boy gets a girl pregnant, he has very little say in what happens next. We talked about the fact that whatever happens, the boy's life will be forever altered. Soon, we'll talk about better decisions boys can make in advance, to avoid such a powerless position.

It was an important conversation, and one that was more meaningful because the boys clearly saw the pain on Finn's face as he pondered the future of his child. As Boy #2 says," Who says you can't learn anything from TV?"

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ingenuity (or, What do Do with Autumn Leaves)

Here in Wisconsin, it is officially Fall -- cloudy skies, cool temps, winter jackets and lots and lots of leaves. And as far as I and my boys are concerned, there is absolutely one thing you must do with your leaves in the fall. Jump in them!

Boy #3 spent hours yesterday raking leaves from the front yard and transferring them to the side yard. (Near the picnic table, he explained. So you can jump off it.) He and his brothers had a blast jumping in the crunchy, cushy pile. "And don't worry, Mom," he told me later. "We cleaned it all up."

This struck me as odd, not the least because my boys are not exactly great about cleaning up after themselves. And cleaning up after a leaf pile? That was something I'd never even asked them to do.

Being a smart mom, I did not inquire further. Who I am to squelch their desire for order, their sense of responsibilty? I did think it odd that there was no neatly raked leaf pile (my idea of how they might have cleaned up) or leaves on the curb (would they possibly have jumped in them and then taken them to the curb for pick up?), but shrugged it off as one more unknowable thing of parenting.

Then I walked into the garage this morning and discovered their stash: One wheelbarrow, full of leaves. One garbage can, full of leaves. One five-gallon bucket, full of leaves. My boys, it seemed, decided to pack their leaf pile away for another day.

The same boys who can barely be bothered to pick up their rooms managed to clean up and store a pile of autumn leaves.

What have your boys done lately that's surprised you?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Boys vs. Girls

What do you think when you think "boy?" How 'bout when you think "girl?"

Koshii Eslinger of Moms at Work was absolutely, positively wanted a boy child. Why?

"I grew up in a household full of girls (5 kids, 4 of us girls) and I know all too well all the attitude, emotions and drama that girls bring. I have a ton of male cousins and it just seemed like they never went through all the drama that we all went through. Their household always seemed calm and peaceful. They weren't constantly bickering, holding grudges and yelling at the top of their lungs."

Clearly, this woman has never visited my house. :)

Now she has a girl, age two, and is very happy. I wonder, though -- if she'd have a boy, would her notions of "boy" and "girl" change? Have your ideas of "boy" and "girl" changed since having children?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Snapshot Sunday: My Fish!


I am not much of an angler. Boy #1, however, is a fishing fanactic -- and a pretty talented one at that. This summer he guided me to my very first Northern pike.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Lives of Boys

If you read the headlines at all, you might conclude that the boys are either violent or into sports. Today, my Google alert screams, "Teen to be tried as juvenille in Crofton boys' death," while also informing me that the Haddonfield boys soccer team blanked Gateway and that Rutger's Miehe won the 2009 Metropolitan Championship.

As a mom who blogs about boys, I'm reminded over and over again of the stereotypes facing our sons. Sports, violence, sex, music -- that's the focus of most news reports about boys.

That, of course, is just my unscientifc observation. However, a report commissioned by the organization Women in Journalism found that "the word most commonly used to describe teen boys in the media is yobs. Other common words were thugs, feral, louts, hoodies, evil, frightening, monsters, scum and heartless. More than 60% of the stories about teen boys concerned crime – 90% of which showed them in a bad light. Eighty-five per cent of a sample of 1,000 boys thought the press portrayed them negatively." (Did I mention that this is a British organization?)

One British journalist, though, set out to find the real boys buried beneath the sterotypes. Simon Hattenstone's article, "Teen Spirit: The Secret Life of Britain's Teenage Boys" is the most thoughtful, informative and sensitive piece of boy-journalism I've seen yet. It's a bit of a long read, but absolutely worth it. I guarantee it.

What do you think about Teen Spirit? On the whole, do you think boys are doing OK? Do you think the media unfairly presents boys as thugs or trouble?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Is More School the Answer?

President Obama may have won the Nobel Peace Prize, but he's certainly not a popular figure in our house right now. (And I'm an Obama fan!)

The reason for the discord? My boys saw this headline in Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "Kids Need More Time in School." Needless to say, they vehemently disagree.

I do too. I'm all for academic achievement, but the idea that "the only way you can close the achievement deficit is by having kids in school longer" is absolutely ludicrous. As if sitting in a classroom is the magic key to knowledge.

Learning can happen any time, anywhere; the only thing that's required, I'm convinced, is a curious child who feels safe in his environment. A supportive adult helps too, but plenty of children learn even in the absence of adults. (Remember William Kamkwamba?)

Obama says that the additional time is necessary for our children to "catch up" to the rest of the world. Children in South Korea, he says, currently spend one more month in school -- every year -- than American children.

I understand the well-meaning intentions, but the logic just doesn't make sense. In Milwaukee, Public Schools Superintendent William Andrekopoulos has proposed adding 10 minutes to the school day and moving to a year-'round schedule. 10 more minutes in school is going to improve things?

If kids are currently failing in school now, why do we think that a longer school day is going to help? Instead of just adding on "more," how 'bout we change the "how?" If kids aren't learning with the currents means and methods, try other methods. If that doesn't work, try something else.

I'm reminded of Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Books for Boys: Sandra Dodd's Big Book of Unschooling


Sandra Dodd's son, Marty, is right: her Big Book of Unschooling makes an excellent bathroom book. Broken down into small, manageable bits, Sanda Dodd's Big Book of Unschooling is inspiration waiting for action. It's accessible, welcoming -- and the perfect anti-dote for parental self-doubt. Her common sense words help you let go and trust and enable you to enhance your sons' lives in ways you may never have imagined.
Here, a conversation with Sandra Dodd.

Define "unschooling."

Unschooling is arranging for natural learning to take place.

Why did you write Sandra Dodd's Big Book of Unschooling?

I had been planning a book, but it wasn't time. Then two requests came in the same season of late 2008. An unschooling mom in India, Hema Bharadwaj, asked me a if I could put my website into book form. I said it wasn't possible. In San Diego, Flo Gascon was organizing the Good Vibrations Unschooling Conference and asked whether she could offer my first book as a pre-order, for her attendees. I figured most of her attendees already had my book, Moving a Puddle. So I offered to do a new book.

Moving a Puddle came out in 2006, and is a collection of most of my published articles from the dozen years before that, from the time my oldest was nine and I was writing for a regional parenting newsletter in New Mexico. Although I was involved in discussions of unschooling throughout the years, and spoke at many conferences, I didn't feel it right to write a strong "how to" unschooling book before I knew for certain that my children wouldn't decide to go to school, and I wanted to wait to see how they were as adults, to make sure I knew what I was talking about. In the time they were growing up, I knew more and more people who had also unschooled into their teens and young adulthood, so while I was working toward the time I would feel we had "successfully completed" unschooling our children, I saw and knew many other families in those later stages of unschooling as well. The more I saw, the more persuaded I was that the longterm effects of unschooling are beyond anything any of us expected or predicted.

Is the book only for homeschoolers -- or will other parents find it useful as well?

There are ideas any parents could use to help their families feel closer, I suppose, but it will be most helpful to unschooling families.

You have 3 children, including 2 completely unschooled boys. How/why do you think unschooling is beneficial for boys?

Many men work around their childhood shame and trauma, or take years untangling and overcoming it. Some men live with it every day, thinking it's just a natural part of everyone's life. Some are timid; some are bullies If their parents could have planned ahead to avoid shame and trauma, how much calmer and creative and courageous might their sons have been? There are inevitable sorrows enough without parents creating them. There are obstacles enough in life without parents setting them purposely or carelessly. Young men who will thank their mothers and hug their dads and who want to come home when they have the option do not come from harsh, traditional, punitive parenting. If their mothers have been their allies and supporters rather than their owners and bosses, life is different. If their fathers have been their counsellors and partners rather than their trainers and overseers, those boys can grow up whole, in peace and confidence.

What one message would you like parents of boys to take home from your book?
Your baby boys aren't future people. They are now who they will be at thirty and forty. You can't change them fundamentally, but you can help them grow nurtured and undamaged.

Sandra Dodd once taught in the public schools in her home town of EspaƱola, New Mexico. Thirty years ago she took up with Keith Dodd, from Alamogordo, they frolicked in history and music and costumes and friends, settled in Albuquerque, and spawned three singing, dress-up kids who grew into three creative adults frolicking in the whole wide world. Documentation can be found here: http://www.sandradodd.com/ and http://sandradodd.blogspot.com/

The book can be purchased from Sandra's website for $25 plus postage. Books are mailed within two days (sometimes within a few hours), by priority mail. Eventually it will be available from Amazon.com, but for now quick and direct is your only option. In the first two weeks, books have been shipped all over the U.S. and Canada, to Scotland, England, Wales, Denmark, The Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and India.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Boy Power

I was going to write about the boy who shot an alligator. Then I found this newsclip online: "Never having heard the term 'green energy,' an African boy unknowingly brought ancient, and at the same time, leading edge technology to his family's small subsistence farm."

I was intrigued.

Now, having learned the story of William Kamkwamba, I am impressed.

Kamkwamba was a fourteen-year-old boy in Malawi when his family ran out of money to send him to school -- because their maize crop failed. So Kamkwamba, unwilling to end his education, visited the public library in his spare time, checking out books and reading them by lamplight after his chores were done.

He stumbled upon the idea of windmills, and learned they could be used to generate electricity and pump water. A windmill, he thought, might help the farm. So this "uneducated" fourteen-year-old boy set out to build a windmill, with no money, no mentors and no materials.

He scavenged the local junkyard and eventually built his windmill. He experimented, added on and soon had the first source of potable water in his village.

Kamkwamba, now 19, was recently invited to speak at the Technology, Education and Design (TED) conference in England -- for the second time. His message? "Trust in yourself and believe. Never give up."

I'll tweak that message: Parents of boys, trust in your sons and believe. William Kamkwamba's mother thought he was "crazy," but she didn't stop her son. Ultimately, she gave him enough freedom, space and support so that he could construct his windmill. And look what he's done!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Snapshot Sunday: Many Moons Ago

This Boy #1 -- before he hit his growth spurt, before his baby teeth fell out and before Boy #4 was born and this room was converted into Boy #1's bedroom. This is also what happens when you lose your camera. My camera has been missing for about three weeks, so I'm digging deep into the files to find something for Snapshot Sunday!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

writing vs. Writing

Do your boys like to write? Most boys don't. Boys' fine motor skills tend to develop later than girls', and so for most boys, the physical act of holding a pencil or pen and creating words is frustrating and painful.

But what if I told you that's not writing?

Oh sure, it's writing in one sense. Call it writing with a small w: writing, tracing letters onto the page. The kind of writing I'm talking about is writing with a capital W: Writing, using written language to communicate.

There's a big difference between the two, and I'm convinced that focusing on writing inhibits Writing -- especially for boys.

That's not to say penmanship is not important. (Although I could argue that it's not. How much of your writing is done by hand these days?) As a writer, though, I believe that if you want you boys to write, you need to shift your focus from the mechanics to the content.

Give your boys room, freedom and permission to play around with language. Let them talk -- a lot. Read them stories. Transcribe their stories. Let them experience the natural flow of language before inundating them with things like grammar, structure and punctuation.

Ask any writer how to become a better writer, and you'll inevitably hear one word: "Read." Writing practice is important, but so is immersing yourself in a world of fine language. By reading -- or listening to -- the writing of others, one intuitively absorbs information about flow, pacing and structure. One learns what details make a story come alive and how to maintain interest. One learns that words have power.

So if you want your boys to Write, put away the pens and pencils for awhile. If your boys are like mine, their verbal storytelling abilities are far above their writing ability, and that's OK. Encourage them to tell their stories. Listen as they summarize their favorite TV shows and explain how to play Yu Gi Oh. Jot down their stories and let your boys see the written transcript. Without writing a word, they will be Writing.

It may be years before your sons' physical abilities catches up to their ability to Write. That's OK. So many parents and teachers insist that writing and Writing go hand-in-hand, but too many boys become frustrated and quit. Too many boys think that Writing is a girl thing. Too many boys stop after learning that teachers value friendship-oriented stories over action-packed adventures. Too many boys conclude that they can't Write, and their voices are lost to the world.

Don't worry about writing. Help your son Write instead.

Friday, October 2, 2009

I've Been Nominated for an Award!

Kim, of Kim's Play Place, recently nominated me for my first-ever homeschool blog award.

The awards are given by Alasandra's Homeschool Blog, an intriguing site if ever I saw one. Recently, she's been running a series of posts covering the controversy the erupted when school kids sang a song about President Barack Obama.

She's also accepting nominations for Best Homeschool Blog thru November 27th. Hurry over and nominate your favorite homeschool blog!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Books for Boys: The Legend of Vinny Whiskers


Happy October! Today, we kick off a new feature: Books for Boys. Approximately once per week, I'll highlight a Book for Boys (or Boy Parents), a book I think your boys will love -- or one that will make your job as a boy parent a little bit easier. Each Book for Boys day will include a Q & A with the author, providing you with a behind-the-scenes look at the book. (I sound like Dr. Suess there, don't I?)

Today's book is The Legend of Vinny Whiskers, which I previously reviewed in June. Author Gregory Kemp is kicking off a two-week blog tour today, and his first stop is Blogging 'Bout Boys.

Where did you get the idea for The Legend of Vinny Whiskers?

GK: That’s a popular question people ask me, but I find it difficult to pin down. It probably came from a few different directions. I tend to give animals, like our dog, a voice. It’s not quite what you’d expect. Our dainty little Italian greyhound talks tough. She’s also interested in science and a fan of William Shatner. My wife thinks it’s pretty funny. I’ve given voices and personalities to the squirrels in the yard, animals in the zoo. So when I was entertaining the idea of writing a novel, an animal story seemed natural.

The other consideration was picking the right animal. In stories, I’ve always preferred underdog heroes over superstars. Secret agents, kid geniuses, knights—while they can be fun, they lack the depth and complexity that exists in the real world. Real people are fallible, yet real people can be heroes. A prairie dog hero offered a lot here. Turning a burrowing animal at the bottom of the food chain into a bona fide legend got me excited. Boomer Lookout, the protagonist of my novel, is not especially good at anything. And he’s got a lot of issues. To me, he’s the ultimate underdog. Plus he lives in the dirt which is funny.

Why do you think this book will appeal to boys?

GK: I don’t have to guess here. I’ve already heard from boys who identify with the main character, Boomer Lookout. Boomer is just a regular kid prairie dog trying to find his way. He doesn’t have any magic powers or special skills, yet over the course of the novel, Boomer finds ways to succeed. I’m very proud of this because I think it holds true to life. You don’t have to do spectacular things to succeed. I think if you give life an honest effort, everyone can find success.

I like the fact that you use big words, like conspicuously and ingenuity. Was that an intentional decision?

GK: Not at all. I originally wrote the book without thinking about the audience. I’ve since been told that books should always been written for a target audience, but I was just trying to write a fun book that might make you think when it’s all over. Hopefully the vocabulary is suitable for the audience. If kids find a tough word here or there, I’d just offer them this advice: don’t let it get in the way of enjoying the story. There are about 65,000 words in Vinny and if you don’t know a few that’s not bad at all! If you learn one or two, all the better.

What kinds of books did you like to read as a boy? How did your likes (and dislikes) then influence Vinny Whiskers?

GK: My favorite books growing up were Choose Your Own Adventures. You know the type, right? “You are stranded on a deserted island. Ahead on the beach you see a wooden chest. In the distance you hear the beating of drums. If you want to investigate the chest, turn to page 10, if you want find the source of the drums, turn to page….” These were fun for me. The plot took all sorts of sudden turns.

I also grew up reading Piers Anthony, the fantasy writer. The Xanth series was a favorite. His creativity is off the chart and I want my writing to be original and fresh.

What advice would you have for young boys who are interested in writing and storytelling?

GK: The boiler plate answer for this would be read, read, read. Okay, I can’t argue with that in principle because you can learn a lot by reading other people’s work. But I would qualify the advice by saying, “Read and think.”

Getting lost in a good book won’t help your writing. You need to stop and ask yourself what is good about the book? What makes you want to turn the page? A good story will have a clear answer for this.

At the same time, you’ve got to practice your writing. Start with a one page story, something like, young Jimmy wants to know what’s inside all the delivery boxes at his neighbor’s house. Put an obstacle in Jimmy’s way like the neighbors are out of town and he can’t ask them or they have a really big dog that Jimmy fears.

Lastly, deliver on the story. Jimmy sneaks over and peeks in a window. What does he find? Why all the boxes? Perhaps there are copies of The Legend of Vinny Whiskers in the boxes and Jimmy’s neighbor is my biggest fan. That’s a very good story if you ask me! When you think you’ve got the story right, go back and make it better. I wrote at least five major drafts of The Legend of Vinny Whiskers. I don’t claim it’s perfect, but it’s a lot better than where I started. And by golly, pay attention in English class!