Friday, December 30, 2011

Boys, Education and Single Parenthood

Talk about an article designed to attract my attention.

An article published yesterday in The Guardian, a British newspaper, carries this provocative headline and subtitle: "Girls 'more resilent' than boys at school: Girls from single-parent families outperform boys in class because they are less affected by parental input, study shows."

As a divorced parent of four boys, I found the article a somewhat depressing retread of a oft-expressed theory: Boys don't do well in single parent homes.

The article states that the so-called "gender gap" in education -- the tendency for boys to underperform in school, as compared to girls -- may be because boys from single parent homes are more likely to have behavioral and emotional problems that carry over into the school setting, while girls don't seem disturbed by the lack of a two-parent household.

According to the article, "Boys raised outside a traditional two-parent family were more likely to display behavioural and self-control problems in class and were suspended more often...By the time the children were 10 or 11 the "gender gap" between boys and girls displaying behaviour problems in school was twice as big for those brought up by single mothers as those from traditional families."

When the boys' dad and I first separated, I quite naturally fretted about the impact of our separation on the boys. (I still do!) Like all modern, 21st century parents, I turned to Google for answers. What I found did not reassure me. Google told me that boys are more likely than girls to become depressed and angry after their parents' divorce. That they're more likely to have academic and behavioral problems, more likely to assume blame and increasingly likely to become distanced from their mother.

Now another study tells me that boys in single parents families are all-but-destined for academic failure??

Well, I refuse to believe it. I refuse to believe that our divorce will doom our boys to a less-than life. I know that our divorce affected them -- and affected them greatly -- but I will not let the divorce be an excuse for academic failure, behavorial problems or relationship issues. I fully, completely, 100% believe that children of divorced and single parents can grow up to become functioning, well-adjusted human beings. And while my ex and I are not perfect, I believe that we're doing some things to mitigate the effect of our divorce.

One: We are both still actively involved in our boys' lives. The Guardian newspaper article doesn't mention if the boys in the study had involved dads; it merely says "single parent families." As you and I both know, single parent families are frequently headed by women. Moms can raise some fabulous sons, but I think it behooves the moms, dads, sons and society to have some continued strong male involvement in boys' lives. Was the problem really that the boys were raised in single parent families, or that they had no strong male role models?

Two: When we see a behavioral problem, we address it. Please don't take this to mean that the boys' dad and I are model co-parents. We're not. Most of the time, we barely talk, and our values and beliefs regarding parenting differ. But...we both want our boys to be functioning members of society. We both want our boys to function well in and out of the classroom. And you can bet that if either one of us hears that our sons are acting up in (or outside of school), we will address the issue. Our boys have had counseling; that remains an option, should it be needed again in the future. I also work with the boys daily on basic problem solving, anger management and interpersonal relations.

Three: We support the boys' interests and educational pursuits. My house is filled with books. The boys' dad loves to watch educational documentary style shows (think "Ice Road Truckers" and "American Pickers") with the boys. We also make it a point to weave the boys' natural interests into our days and the boys' education. Boy #1 is an avid fisherman; I showed him how to use the library website to access every fishing book within our interlibrary loan system, and his dad helped him get and outfit a simple boat and takes him fishing. #2 loves sports: He plays football, basketball and baseball, and has lots of fiction and non-fiction books about sports. #3 is gettting into robotics, electronics and RC cars. Guess what he got for Christmas? I gotta think that all of that educational support will make a difference for the boys in the long run.

What do you think? Do you think that life in a single parent household dooms boys to a life of educational failure? Or do you think that parenting is more important than household or family structure?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Taking Time Off

Raising boys is a lot of work! And if you're like most parents I know, you probably feel likely overwhelmed right now. Winter holiday + already busy schedule + tight family budget = stress.

My question to you is, What are you doing to deal with the stress? A lot of articles and blog posts this time of year focus of cutting back on holiday activities. And while that approach makes sense -- less must-do's = less stress, right? -- what I really want is some time to do nothing.

Can you relate?

It's not easy to take time off when you have kids. Parents don't get sick days, or holidays either. But I'm learning (ever so slowly!) to respect the cravings of my brain and body. When my brain and body scream for a break, I try to take a break.

No, I probably won't be able to take an entire day off, at least not this week or next week. But I can turn off the computer, grab a good book and hop into a hot bath. As a matter of fact, that's what I'm going to do right now.

What do you do when you need a break?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Supporting Families and Education

Finland is doing something right.

At least, that's the basic premise behind a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, "All Eyes on Education." Finnish students excel on international measures of academic achievement; they consistently receive high scores in reading, math and science. Finland also has one of the world's smallest achievement gaps between its lowest- and highest-performing school. And they do it all on a per-kid education budget that's less than the United States'.

But as the article makes clear, Finns' educational success isn't completely due to high standards for teachers and an emphasis on creativity and independent thought. The country also places a high value on the family -- and, unlike the United States, which pays lip service to the importance of family but actually does very little support families, Finland puts its money where its priorities lie.

While the United States leaves parents alone to figure out how to juggle work, family, childcare and education, the Finnish government allows parents (of both sexes!) to take up to 17 weeks of paid vacation of the birth of a child. If they wish, parents can add on another three years of unpaid leave. Free daycare is available for all children from infancy to kindergarten-age, but if parents choose to care for their children at home, they receive a monthly home-care allowance from the government. That's on top of the monthly child support money every single family receives until the kids are grown, the one the article says parents get because Finns believe "that raising children shouldn't be an undue financial burden for families."

Oh, and they get healthcare as well.

Think about it: How different would life be if all parents were able to take time off of work to bond with their babies? If parents who wanted to nurture their children at home were given the resources to do so, instead of being financially forced to place their children into often sub-standard childcare arrangements so that they can pay the bills and have health insurance?

What would it be like if we gave families the tools they needed to raise and nurture the next generation?

Yes, such government support comes at a cost. According to the Journal Sentinel article, income taxes in Finland range from 6.5% to 30%; municipal taxes are 16 to 21%, depending on income. But I wonder: How much would that really affect my daily budget? I mean, if I got healthcare and childcare and some child support from the government back, would I really be paying any more per month? Or would I merely be participating in a system that does its best to ensure that all kids get a good start in life?

Because I believe that what happens at home is always more important than what happens at school. Whether you're in Finland or inner city L.A., what happens at home has far more bearing on your education and character development than anything that happens in the classroom.

I'm in no position to emigrate to Finland, so for now, I will do everything I can to support families and education here in the U.S. For me, that has meant sacrificing years of income and retirement security to be with my kids in their younger years. It means continuing to support my kids' interests and outside activities, even now that most of them are in school. It also means supporting moms and dads by the dissemination of information. That's why I write articles; that's why I blog.

It's also why I try to provide support and encouragement to every parent I meet. Parenting is hard work, and even if I can't help with the specifics of your situation, I can assure you that challenges are normal and that the struggle is worth the effort. I can smile at mom with two crying kids in a stroller; perhaps my smile will signal to her that I think her efforts are worthwhile.

I can also work in community to meet the needs of the families around me. I can donate food to my local food pantry, buy gifts for families in need over the holidays and support legislation that supports families and education.

What are you doing to support families and education? Do you think government should play a larger role in the support of families, ala Finland? Or do you think there's something to be said for the U.S. approach?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Homeschooling Boys

Do you homeschool your boys? If so, I'd love to hear about some of your favorite books, games, resources and activities.

Leave me a comment with some of your favs. I'll do a round-up post of your favorite resources. (And if you have a lot of say, feel free to drop me an email at

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for:

  • Four wonderful, healthy boys who challenge, inspire and teach me every single day
  • Acts of kindness from friends, neighbors and strangers
  • A close-knit community
  • A church that welcomes my children as valuable members of the faith community
  • Technology! I couldn't live the life I do without the Internet.
  • The ability to read. Did you ever stop and wonder how much richer your life is because you know how to read?
  • Red wine and coffee
  • My woodstove
  • Our puppy, who, like my boys, challenges me daily, but brings so, so much to our lives.
  • The Muppets (this one might be because I saw The Muppet Movie today, but c'mon -- I really think the Muppets make the world a better place)
  • Quiet times for reflection
  • Camping trips with my boys
  • Hikes in the woods
  • Plentiful work -- and the ability to make a living doing interesting work I enjoy
  • Online communities that create real-life connections (FLX!)
  • The fact that I am still standing, four years into the recession and one year post-divorce. While so many in the world struggle, I still have my children, my friends, my home and my family, and that is everything.
Thanks for sharing the journey with me.

What are you thankful for this holiday season?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Penn State and Sexual Abuse

I've been thinking about Penn State a lot lately.

By now, you've heard the story: Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State football coach, has been charged with molesting eight boys over a 15-year period. Sandusky denies molesting anyone, though he admits to showering and "horsing around" with young boys.

Whether or not the allegations against Sandusky are true, the fact remains that sexual abuse of young boys is a problem. One in six boys will be a victim of sexual abuse before the age of 18. Most will know their perpetrator.

Scared yet? I am. While I truly believe that most people who work with kids are good, kind people, statistics, case studies and anecdotal data tell me that there are some bad people out there as well. And the real problem is that the bad guys don't always look like the bad guys.

Sexual abusers are often, on the surface, well-liked members of the community. Many of them appear genuinely concerned about kids; many of them have convinced themselves that they are genuinely concerned about kids. But sexual abusers gradually break down boundaries. Sexual abuse may start with a gentle touch. Who, after all, is going to object to a slow back rub from a coach who's an all-around good guy?

Put yourself in the place of potential victim. Imagine, for a minute, that you are 10-years-old. That your home life is less-than-stellar. Not abusive, necessarily; just less-than-nurturing. Perhaps your mom works all the time to support the family. Maybe your dad just lost his job and is feeling kind of depressed. Maybe your parents are too busy to really spend time with you, and maybe, in your heart of hearts, you're feeling a little bit lonely.

Along comes a coach. Where your parents see an interruption and interference, he sees potential. He spends time with you. He tells you you're special. He smiles when he sees you coming; your mom frowned today when she saw your report card.

So when your coach invites you to his house after practice, you feel honored. His family is so nice to you!

Now...imagine this scenario playing out over a matter of months or years. Imagine the warm feelings you develop for the coach. Now imagine that the coach touches your back just a little too long after dinner one day. The quick squeeze of the shoulders turns into something else -- fingers rubbing up and down your back. It feels odd, but it's over as soon as it starts.

Would you tell someone? Probably not. After all, "nothing" really happened, and Coach is a good guy. Besides, you're 10; he's the adult. It seemed normal to Coach, so you're probably just over-reacting.

Most sexual abusers groom their victims over a period of time. After gaining the victim's trust, there are gradual violations of the victim's boundaries. By the time the hard-core sexual abuse happens, the abuser has essentially trained the child to ignore the boundary violations. The abuser has become an important part of the child's life. And sometimes, the abuse feels good on a physical level. Imagine the shame and confusion felt by a child who actually felt a moment of pleasure when sexually abused by a trusted adult!

It's up to us, as parents and community members, to create safe environments for our children.

How do we do that?

1. Love our children.
All children need to feel special, loved and valuable. Love your children, and be kind to their friends as well. Listen to their hopes, dreams and fears. Support their efforts and desires. A child with a strong sense of self and a strong support system at home is not an attractive target for sexual abuse.

2. Teach children to question authority.
Teachers and coaches and priests are not always right. Let your child know that it's OK to ask questions and express opinions --- and live that lesson in your home. Encourage children to think critically; welcome their questions and queries.

3. Minimize opportunity.
One-on-one situations are the most dangerous for kids. Does that mean that your child can never go fishing with an adult friend? No. It means that you better know that friend awfully well first. And that you should pay close attention to your child's behavior before and after outings with the friend. At the first sign of trouble, halt all further contact until you figure out what's going on.

4. Teach children the difference between good and bad secrets
. Abusers often convince children to keep "their secret." So be sure to tell your child about the different kinds of secrets. Good secrets -- like birthday surprises -- are ones that make people feel happy. Good secrets are only kept for a certain period of time before they're revealed. Bad secrets, on the other hand, make you feel yucky inside. Bad secrets are ones that are supposed to be kept forever. Tell your child that you will help him handle bad secrets.

5. Steer away from adults who exhibit risky behavior.
According to a recent article, adults who don't respect your rules when they're with your child may be setting up an unhealthy dynamic. Also be alert for adults who want to spend time alone with kids.

6. Respond to symptoms
. Be alert for these possible symptoms of abuse:
  • Change in appearance. Kids who are being sexually abused may start dressing in baggy, unattractive clothing.
  • Withdrawal and social isolation. It's common for teens to spend time alone in their rooms. But if your child has pulled away from all his friends, something more might be going on.
  • Anxiety. Some kids will be anxious before specific activities. Other sexually abused kids experience general anxiety.
  • Decreased school performance. Have your child's grades recently dropped, for no explainable reason?
  • Disinterest in usual activities. If your formerly hyped-up-about-football son loses interest in the sport, it's up to you to figure out what's up.
7. Report your suspicions. According to the first reports out of Penn State, another football coach called his dad -- not the police --after witnessing a disturbing scene between Sandusky and a 10-year-old boy. (The coach has since said he talked with the police). Frankly, I can understand how shock might impair activity. But the bottom line is this: kids' lives are on the line. Sexual abuse affects victims' entire lives; it affects the lives of their children and spouses as well. So don't wait. If you even think that something inappropriate is going on between an adult and a child, speak up. Report your suspicions to the authorities and let them conduct an investigation.

Have you been talking about Penn State with your kids?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why My Boys are Getting Gardisil -- and Why Yours Should Too

Have you heard of Gardisil? It's one of the two HPV vaccines that are currently on the market. (The other is Cervarix.) HPV, or human papilloma virus, is shorthand for a number of HPV strains that are known to cause cancer.

Put the pieces together. HPV causes cancer. There are two effective HPV -- cancer preventing! -- vaccines on the market. Why are we not jumping up and down about this news?

Instead, everyone from Michelle Bachmann to the parent down the street is weighing in on the merits and dangers of the vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently upped the ante when they recommended routinely vaccinating boys as well as girls.

That recommendation doesn't make sense to some parents. After all, doesn't HPV cause cervical cancer?

Well, it does. But did you know that HPV is now a leading cause of head and neck cancers as well? Or that it can cause penile and anal cancer also?

According to the CDC, each year in the U.S.:

  • 1,500 women and 5,600 men get HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the back of throat including base of tongue and tonsils)
  • 400 men get HPV-associated penile cancer
  • 2,700 women and 1,500 men get HPV-associated anal cancer
Traditionally, smoking and tobacco usage were the main causes of head and neck cancers. But experts say that's changing. In a recent interview, Dr. Gregory Weinstein of the University of Pennsylvania told me that the number of oropharyngeal cancers is rising, and that head and neck cancers are increasingly occurring in younger patients.

Think about that for a bit. HPV is incredibly common; medical experts say that up to 50% of the sexually active population will be infected with HPV at some point. And oral sex is increasingly common among teenagers. According to the CDC, between 2006 and 2008, 48.4% of males between that ages of 15 and 19 have had oral sex with a female. 44.6% of 15 to 19 year-old girls have had oral sex with a male.

Not surprisingly, the numbers increase as the teens grow into adults. By adulthood, the number of people who have had oral sex hovers around 90 percent.

So, statistically-speaking, my boys -- and yours --are at risk for oral exposure to HPV. There's no guarantee that HPV exposure will result in oral cancer; researchers are still trying to determine why some people seem to clear with virus from their bodies without problem, while others go on to develop pre-cancerous and cancerous lesions. But given what we know now -- HPV can cause cancer, HPV is sexually transmitted and is virtually endemic in the population -- why wouldn't I take steps now to protect my sons' health?

Yes, there are some risks to the HPV-vaccine. There are also a lot of misconceptions about the vaccine. For a balanced look at the issues, check out this news story by NPR.

Bottom line: I'm getting my boys vaccinated against HPV. I'm doing it for them, and I'm doing it for their future sex partners as well.

How about you? Have your boys gotten the HPV vaccine?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Guest Post: In Praise of Free Play

By Marijke Vroomen Durning

It’s a typical toddler birthday party. The gifts are quickly unwrapped. While his parents ooh and aah over the wonderful toys, little Evan is enthralled with the discarded colorful paper and ribbons. If he’s really lucky, the gifts came in big boxes – and we know what that means. To heck with the gifts, there are boxes to play with!

When we were children, how many of us were thrilled at the prospect of a new appliance delivery? It wasn’t the new fridge or dryer that we were anticipating, it was The Box -- the great mysterious box that would provide us with hours of entertainment. What exotic places or far away planets would we travel to? What magical stories would we tell? What would we experience by getting inside this box?

Amid all the wonderful opportunities our children have, from organized sports and music lessons, to specialized school prep courses, there is one thing those activities don’t offer: the ability, the opportunity for children to reach beyond what they know. To use their imagination.

If we have so much to entertain our children, why is it important for children to play with a box?

Because that box doesn’t tell a child what to do.

It doesn’t present itself as anything but an empty box. There are no preconceived notions as to what should be done with it. What that box becomes is entirely up to the child.

Organized games are fun. Sports, outside activities, card and board games, even video games can offer useful life lessons in terms of cooperation, taking turns, and so on. But these games have rules that are set up in advance. In order for the children to play, they must follow the rules.

On the other hand, free play, such as playing with the box or running around outside with friends, has no preset rules. The rules are what the children decide they should be. And, if you watch children in free play, you may also notice that the rules are often very fluid. What wasn’t allowed at the beginning is more than acceptable later on, for example.

Fantasy play, which can include rough-and-tumble wrestling or having a tea party, calls on using imagination. Roles have to be created and there are decisions on how those roles will be played, who does what, when and where. As the play evolves, more thought has to be put in to the next steps of the game. There is likely a lot of negotiation as each child tries to be what he or she wants, or at least do something that gives him or her pleasure. Cooperation is needed so the play runs smoothly, and learning that you can’t always have your own way may also pop into the equation – that is, if you want to have playmates the next time you want to play.

Unfortunately, fantasy and imaginative play are becoming a lost art in many families. Too many children aren’t allowed to be bored – which is often when fantasy games are created. Many parents feel that if they allow their children to become bored, they must be failing in some way. So, to prevent boredom, there are many activities to choose from, either independently or with a parent.

Fantasy play may also be losing out to a perceived lack of time. Children are spending time in school, in daycare, and in organized activities. When they get home, they may have homework to do or they’re just plain too tired to do anything but watch TV or play on the computer. Parents, who are organizing their own full lives often don’t have the time or wherewithal to encourage their children to play. It’s easier to keep them busy.

And finally, there is the issue of adult hovering, or helicopter parenting. Parents who fall into this category don’t allow their children to play by themselves or with other children without their supervision for fear that they may get hurt physically or that their children may not be able to hold their own against a friend who may be a stronger personality. By being ever present, the hovering parents can ensure that their children always get to play fair, take turns, and have an adult to turn to if they feel that play isn’t going the right way.

Of course, life isn’t always so cut and dry, but if we think about it, it is easy to see that our children are not getting many opportunities to be kids, to pretend there are flying off to planet XYX to battle the bad guys. They can’t set up an elaborate theater so they can present a puppet show to their dolls and stuffed animals, and they can’t lie on the grass, staring up at the sky to see the clouds.

Although our lives are enriched with technology and fun that didn’t exist a generation ago, we shouldn’t relegate free play into the past, something quaint that we do when the power goes off.

Free play is an essential part of being a child and children who don’t get that opportunity to play may be missing out on a vital part of childhood development.

Guest blogger Marijke Vroomen Durning is gathering stories about games we used to play as children. She invites people to visit her website, Games We Used to Play, to read other stories and to submit a memory of a game (or games) they played, perhaps discovering that these favorite games were also played elsewhere with different rules or under a different name.

Photo by Nicholas Kimball via Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Life's Not Fair

It all started because I had the wrong breakfast cereal.

No, back that up. It started because I didn't wake the boys up early.

Actually, it started the night before, when Boy #1 noticed that our van's front passenger tire was saying, "Psssssssssst."

The tire clearly had a leak. And given the consistency of the hiss emanating from my tire, the fact that it was almost 8 pm at night and the hard-to-admit but true fact that I have never, ever changed a tire, it was pretty obvious that a) the tire would be completely flat by morning and b) that I wouldn't be able to give the boys a ride to school.

Instead of springing this horrible, life-alterning news on the boys in the morning, I decided to give them a heads-up before bedtime.

"Just so you know," I said, "the van has a flat tire, so I won't be able to give you a ride to school in the morning. You'll have to walk or bike."

From the tears and groans that erupted, you'd think that we lived 10 miles, at least, from school, or that I had asked them to crawl across broken glass. (Actually, I think the broken glass assignment would have gotten a more enthusiastic reception.) The reality, though, is that we live a block and a half from the elementary school and less than a mile from the middle school. My boys are healthy, able-bodied and definitely able to cover the distance. In fact, they walk home on a regular basis.

But walking in the morning? That was just too much!

I told the boys that I'd wake them a bit early, since they'd need to leave for school earlier than usual. I even said that I'd walk along with them. And that we could bring the dog. They were still-- how shall I put this delicately? -- NOT HAPPY.

Cut to the next morning. Knowing full well how crabby my kids are in the morning, I decided to let them sleep as long as possible. Instead of waking them at 6:45 am (their usual wake-up time is 7), I let them sleep 'til 6:50. Boy #2 was furious when he realized that I woke him up "late." (Never mind the fact that he has his own alarm.)

His bad mood continued into the kitchen. An inspection of panty revealed that "all" we had for breakfast was Cheerios and Raisin Bran.

"We never have any good cereal!" he exclaimed. He practically cried as he spooned "stale" Raisin Bran into his mouth. (Never mind that we got the cereal last week.)

By this time, his younger brothers had joined us in the kitchen, and picked up the chorus.

"It's raining outside!," #3 declared. (Never mind the fact that the rain had stopped hours before the boys woke up; the pavement was merely wet.)

"Why do we have to walk?" #3 pleaded -- despite the fact that our van was clearly leaning to one side.

I' snapped.

"I'm not here to make a perfect world for you!," I yelled. "I'm here to help you figure out how to live in an imperfect world."

The words were so profound that I was struck by their wisdom. I grabbed a pen and pad of paper and scrawled down my sudden insight.

I could, I suppose, bend over backwards to create a "perfect" world for my kids. I could stock the right cereals, let them sleep the perfect number of minutes per night, and stay up late, learning how to change a tire on YouTube.

But I don't owe my kids perfection. I need to feed my kids, but I certainly don't need to feed them the trendiest cereals in the coolest boxes. I need to help my kids learn, but I don't owe them a ride to school.

Besides, perfection is an ever-moving target, and life comes at us, whether we're ready or not. My boys are growing up in a world that includes flat tires and sudden, unexpected changes in plans. I don't think I'd do them any favors by artifically creating a "perfect" environment.

What my boys -- and yours -- really need to learn is how to live in an imperfect environment. They need to learn how to roll with the punches, how to respond to disappointment, and how to cope with unexpected challenges. They need to learn how to live and love in the face of adversity. The reality is that life often fails to live up to our expectations -- and the sooner my boys learn how to smile with grace and move on , the happier they'll be.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Get Ready for Veteran's Day

I know it's not even Halloween, but Veteran's Day (November 11) is fast approaching. Want to mark the day in a meaninful manner? Check out my blog post, Honoring Our Vets, at The Homeschool Classroom.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is Your Son a Picky Eater?

None of my sons are a gourmand's dream. Each will hesitate at the sight of new food -- and by "hesitate," I mean "politely (or not-so-politely) refuse to try." None of them are big fans of mixed foods, like casserole, even if they like all of the individual ingredients. (My boys all like ham, cheese, noodles and broccoli -- but mix those basic ingredients up in a casserole, and none of the boys will do much more than take the requisite taste.) Their list of OK foods is pretty narrow: pizza, burgers, spaghetti, pork chops, chicken nuggets, sandwiches, get the picture.

Part of it, I assume, is my fault. I'm not the most adventurous eater either. I was well into my twenties before I tried a non-Italian, non-Mexican ethnic food. Even then, I had to make a conscious effort to focus on the overall taste, and not think, "what is IN this thing?" (because God forbid if it contain an ingredient I didn't like!). To this day, I'm not a big fan of veggies and I really, really don't like fruit -- as in, I have a weird aversion to fresh fruit. If I actually force myself to eat fruit, I'm able to admit that the taste isn't so bad -- and may actually be good. But overcoming the mental hurdle is more effort than I'm usually willing to put in. Luckily, my boys haven't inherited my fruit aversion. All of them enjoy multiple fruits; my oldest, I think, could live on fruit.

The idea that my boys might have inherited some of my food quirks, though, is not so far-fetched. A 2007 New York Times article reported on a research study that indicated that 78% of kids' receptiveness to new foods appears to be genetic, while 22% is environmental.

Interesting, right? Yes. But ultimately, not helpful, because what we all want to know is how to a) make sure our kids get a balanced diet and b) help our kids enjoy food.

Techniques I've tried, with little to no success:
  • Stocking the house with mostly good food and letting the boys eat what they want. The problem with this technique, at least at my house, is that there's so much junk food in the world! My boys have an amazing ability to hold out, and junk food has an amazing ability to show up just often enough to prevent the boys from ever getting hungry enough to eat the "good food." Case in point: My Mom loves to bring over donuts. She also keeps her house stocked with treats, and frankly, I don't want to be the mom who refuses to let Grandma give the boys treats.
  • Insisting that the boys try at least one bite of every food on their plates. The big problem with this one? I don't want to have to police who eats what. Plus, my boys will eagerly watch each other for reaction. If one tries supper and makes a face, the others manage to gag or sit there stubbornly while the food remains on their plates.
  • Letting the boys fix their own simple meal after trying the offered meal. I refuse to make multiple meals. Once I've cooked a meal, I want to sit down and eat it. I also recognize the fact that not every member of the family will like the meal. So if my boys at least try the food, I allow them to get up and make themselves a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich or bowl of cereal.
  • Eliminating the distinctions between "good" and "bad" food. Essentially, this technique meant letting the boys eat whatever they wanted. They were happy. I was not. See bullet point #1. There's just too much non-nutritious food out there in the world, and I want to make sure my boys are getting the calories, protein, vitamins and minerals they need.
Now Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No-Cry Sleep Solution and other No-Cry parenting books, has published the No-Cry Picker Eater Solution. I appreciate her intent, as well as the fact that there's a huge audience for this book. I just don't think that most of her advice is going to work for my boys. Check out this excerpt:

~ Put vegetables on a pedestal.
It's an odd fact that while vegetables are a healthy cornerstone of any diet, they are usually relegated to a back corner side dish. While interesting recipes appear for main dishes, the vegetables are often steamed or boiled in a routinely boring presentation. Start treating vegetables as the star of the meal and your kids will too.

I doubt it.

~ Name the star of the show.
Vegetables rarely get the spotlight. When kids ask, "what's for dinner?" we name the meat and starch - "Chicken and rice" or "Steak and potatoes" and don't even mention the vegetables. From now on, name the veggies first. Create a fun name for the vegetable of the day you can help your children view them in a different light. So, what's for dinner? "We're having Brilliant Bunches of Broccoli along with chicken and rice."

Would your boys be tricked by "Brilliant Bunches of Broccoli?" I don't think mine would. Besides, my boys already like broccoli. I need help with the chicken! (For some reason, despite the fact that I serve it often in a variety of different ways, my boys tend to think of chicken as a "weird" food.)

~ Search out new recipes for veggies.
Try stir-frying a mix of veggies with olive oil to give them an attractive presentation and a unique flavor. Add a sprinkling of nuts or seeds or a dribble of sauce. Mix two or even three kinds of vegetables together for a colorful dish.

See blog post paragraph #1. My boys don't like (read: "won't touch") mixed-up foods.

~ Get artistic.
It can be fun to serve vegetables in interesting containers or arranged colorfully in patterns or shape.

It can be a lot of work to artfully cut up and arrange veggies that my boys aren't going to eat anyway.

~ Let them dip 'em.
Serve a platter of raw veggies with dipping sauce such as ranch dressing, yogurt or hummus Kids often prefer raw vegetables over cooked, especially if they can dip.

The only dip my boys like is ketchup. They still consider ranch dressing and hummus exotic, "weird" foods. Yogurt is OK, but the only thing they'll dip in it is fruit (after the yogurt has been mixed with peanut butter.) They do like raw veggies better than cooked veggies, though.

~ Give kids a choice.

Routinely serve two vegetables at dinner so that you double the chance your child will eat at least one. Plus, seeing two vegetables will build an expectation that vegetables are important.

Yep. It will also double the odds that I end up wasting twice as many veggies.

~ Get sneaky.
While you are teaching your child about nutrition, go ahead and hide some vegetables within other recipes to up your child's daily quota. It's easy to add chopped spinach to hamburgers, pureed squash into macaroni and cheese, crushed cauliflower into mashed potatoes, or bits of carrots and broccoli into spaghetti sauce. That way your kids get the benefits of vegetables no matter what.

Despite my boys' reluctance, I refuse to hide veggies. Isn't the point to teach them to enjoy multiple foods. Won't hiding the "good" foods just teach the kids that the food in question really is yucky? (I mean, do you traditionally hide your good china? Or good clothes?) And won't they just then be more suspicious of any food that you make? Because I'm sure that at least one of my boys would figure out what's up.

So parents -- How do you deal with picky eaters?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Keeping Boys Busy

What are your boys doing to stay busy this fall?

My oldest, age 13, is a member of the Junior Show Choir. (Think Glee, but without all the snark). He's also got a bit part in a local community theatre production, cuts lawn for some residential customers and writes content for a fishing website.

Boy #2, now 11, is playing football on a 5th and 6th grade team. The team practices Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 4:30 pm to 6 pm -- and plays games on Saturday -- so between school and sport, he has little time at home.

Boy #3, age 8, is attending third grade at a local school. In his spare time, he loves to bike and skateboard. He also recently took third place in a 1K race for kids ages 8 and under. He's already announced his intent to play flag football next year.

Boy #4, age 5, is in kindergarten. He also likes to putter in his workshop (yes, I let him use tools), watch Wild Kratts and play with friends.

Did I mention that we're also members of 4H?

Life is pretty busy these days, as I imagine it is in your home. But while my older boys are involved in a couple of organized activities (Show Choir, football), I don't think that organized activities are essential. Keeping boys busy is a must -- boys with too much time on their hands tend to find trouble. But "busy" can vary from boy to boy and home to home. Consider these non-organized, but still fun ideas to keep your boys busy this fall:
  • Yard cleanup. Don't laugh. Your kids might be more willing to participate than you think. The key is to work together; your kids aren't going to get excited about picking up the yard unless you're out there too. Look for age-appropriate ways for the kids to contribute. My 5-yr-old loves driving his plastic truck around the yard and picking up sticks.
  • Making wood. Do you heat your home (at least partially) with wood? Let the boys go out into the woods with you, their dad or another reliable adult. You probably don't want them using chainsaws yet, but there's no reason why they can't carry and haul wood -- and help stack the wood at home. Make sure to leave some time to play in the woods.
  • Go for a hike. Right now, the fall colors at my home are near their peak. The days are warm and bathed in golden sunshine. It's the perfect time to get out and explore natural areas. One bonus: most of the bugs are gone!
  • Pick apples. Got an apple orchard nearby, or an apple tree in your yard? Get busy picking apples! Your sons can help you convert the apples into apple chips, applesauce and apple pie.
  • Go camping. If you can, try squeezing in just one more weekend of camping. I'd love to take my boys, but football (see above) is interfering with our schedule.
  • Go for a bike ride. On a rainy day, have your boys tune-up their bikes. Then take them out for a spin on a nearby bike trail.
Have any other ideas to list? How do your boys stay busy in the fall?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How's School Doing?

We're almost one month into the official school year. How is school going for your son?

Whether you homeschool or send your kids to a public or private school, it's a good idea to periodically take stock and see what's working -- and what's not -- regarding your sons' education. Some things to look at:

  • Your sons' mood: How are your sons after school or lessons? All in all, are they content and energized? Or are they spent and depleted? Overall, are they expressing positive emotions toward school and learning, or has their outlook toward class and/or learning become increasingly negative?
  • Your sons' curiosity: How curious is your son about the world? Does he remain interested in a few special subjects? (Some boys love robots; mine happen to love fishing, sports and RC cars.) Or is he becoming apathetic? A lack of interest in things -- especially things he once loved -- can signal trouble.
  • Your mood: How are you doing? Are you getting enough sleep? Do you feel generally content and satisfied with your current educational arrangement, or do you frequently feel frustrated, overwhelmed or powerless? Your feelings matter too.
  • Family flow: Is your educational choice working for your family? By now, your family should have settled into some kind of school routine. Is it working for you? Or do you constantly feel like you're engaged in an uphill battle?
  • Engagement in learning: Don't get overly excited (or concerned) about what your sons have (or have not) learned so far this year. Instead, check his engagement. Whatever your doing, does your son seem interested and engaged in the learning process? Or is he pulling further and further away from lessons and learning?
If you notice problems in any of these areas, it might be time to make some changes. Does your son need additional help at school? Perhaps the homeschooling curriculum that looked so good on paper isn't working out so well in real life. Maybe it's time to ditch it and try something else.

Be alert for emotional challenges at school as well. There's been a lot of attention to bullying lately, but sadly, it remains a problem and reality for many kids. No child will remain enthusiastic about a learning environment that damages his soul. If bullying is a problem for your son, step in -- now. You can find some great tips from the Mayo Clinic here.

This year, we made some major educational changes. Boys #2-4 are now enrolled in our local public school full-time. That's a big change for a family that's practiced relaxed homeschooling for the past 6-and-a-half years! But you know what? It's working so far.

Boy #4, age 5, comes home from kindergarten each day bubbling with information and activity. When I pick him up at school, he calls out "good-bye!" to about a dozen kids. Every day, he's eager to show me what he's learned.

Boys #2 and 3 are at our local middle school. Like many kids, their favorite subjects include Gym and Recess. Almost daily, they'll talk about their exploits on the playground. And while there have been some playground challenges -- Boy #3 doesn't like the fact that the kids tend to bicker more than they actually play -- neither child is bothered enough to step away from the activity. Both have made friends; nearly every day, at least one friend from school comes over to play. Both boys also remain surprisingly enthusiastic about reading. They need to read a certain number of minutes each day -- but the best part is that both seem to thoroughly enjoy the books they read.

Boy #1 continues to be homeschooled, but blends his home education with two formal classes at school (Integrated Language Arts and Science), vocal lessons, show choir, acting and fishing. He also writes for an outdoors website, He, too, seems generally content with his educational arrangement.

And I now have some time to breathe. While I will forever value our years of homeschooling, homeschooling on my own over the past two years was HARD. The hard part: trying to find enough time for my kids while also earning a family supporting income. I did it, but my own health and well-being suffered. (See Bullet Point #3) It was time for a change. And while I'll continue to monitor my sons' learning and education, for now, our unconventional choice seems the best choice for us.

How are things in your home? Is your educational choice working out, or is it time to make some changes?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Is SpongeBob a Bad Influence?

He's just a made-up cartoon character, a squarish-sponge in shorts who lives under the sea, flips burgers for a living and interacts with a squirrel in an astronaut-like helmet. But boy, has SpongeBob been making a splash!

Yesterday, the esteemed medical journal Pediatrics released a study that showed that preschoolers have decreased brain power after watching just nine minutes of SpongeBob. According to the study (which I covered for iVillage), the fast-pace of SpongeBob, combined with the fantastical setting and plot, might tax preschoolers' brains to the point that they have little left after the show for problem solving and delaying gratification.

So does that mean your sons should never watch SpongeBob?

I don't think so.

Like him or not, SpongeBob is a major cultural touchstone for young kids. If you choose not to expose your kids to SpongeBob and his ilk, I completely respect your decision. But I also think there's something to be said for letting your kids know what the hoopla is all about.

While the Pediatrics study is being played for headlines (and yes, I'm guilty of it too), it also contained some great, commonsense takeaway messages. Among them:
  • TV shows -- even TV shows for kids -- vary greatly. TV isn't inherently good or bad. A vast gulf exists between, say, Spongebob and Sid the Science Kid. Both are animated. Both are aimed at kids. But even the creators of shows will tell you that the shows have very different purposes. SpongeBob was designed to entertain older kids. Sid the Science Kids is designed to encourage preschooler's scientific curiosity.
  • Different TV shows have different effects on kids' behavior. The Pediatrics study compared the thinking and behavior of kids who watched SpongeBob with that of kids who watched a "realistic Public Broadcasting Service cartoon about a typical US preschool-aged boy" and kids who spent the same time period drawing. The kids who watched SpongeBob performed the worst on tests designed to measure kids' "executive function" (higher level cognitive tasks). The takeway for parents, at least as far as I'm concerned: Be mindful of the effects of TV on your kids. If you find your sons' behavior deteriorating after certain TV shows, sit down and watch the show with your kids. Is it really appropriate for your kids? Maybe it's time to tweak their TV viewing habits a bit.
  • Select shows with your kids' age and interests in mind. Nickelodeon, home of SpongeBob, came out forcefully against the study, arguing the SpongeBob wasn't designed for preschoolers in the first place. They're right. But let's face it: if you have older kids in the house, your younger ones will likely be exposed to shows aimed at an older audience. I don't fret if my younger kids spend some time watching SpongeBob or iCarly with their older brothers, but I do attempt to offset that time by making sure they get time to watch age-appropriate shows like Martha Speaks and Wild Kratts.

Some other thoughts re kids and TV:

  • Provide balance. Yes, my kids watch SpongeBob. They also watch American Pickers and Ice Road Truckers and historical and nature documentaries.
  • Be open to life lessons in surprising places. Fellow writer and parent Geoff Williams penned a great business article a few years ago entitled "5 Things SpongeBob Squarepants Can Teach You About Business." You -- and authors of the Pediatrics study -- might not think of SpongeBob as a business expert, but if you look closely, you can gleam some actual business wisdom from the show. You and your kids can even learn some life lessons from SpongeBob and his crew.
  • Talk about it! Kids need adults to help put things in context. But please don't lecture your children. Listen first. Talk to them about their favorite TV shows. Ask them what they like about the show. (It might not be what you think.) Watch with them. Then, ever so naturally, talk about the show. If something bugs you, say so -- and why. If a character does something you like, say so and why. Engage your kids in the conversation.

What do you think of SpongeBob and the Pediatrics study? Do you have any other useful tips re kids and TV?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Characteristics of Homeschooling Families

Have I mentioned the fact that I'm blogging for The Homeschool Classroom this year?

My first post, 7 Characteristics of Homeschooling Families, went live yesterday. Check it out and let me know what you think.