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.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Boys Don't Want to Discuss Problems

Did you see the recent study that examined boys' and girls' thoughts and opinions regarding problem sharing?

The first line of a related news article elicited a strong, "No duh!" response from me. Check it out:

"A new University of Missouri study finds that boys feel that discussing problems is a waste of time."

As a mom of four boys and the ex-spouse of one overgrown boy, I can confirm for you with absolute certainty that the above statement is true. I'll also safely hazard a guess and say that you're most likely not exactly surprised by the study's findings either.

But if you dig further into the study and associated news reports, you'll find some nuggets of information that are useful for parenting boys.

For years, the study authors said, psychologists have advocated creating "safe spaces" for men and boys to talk about their problems -- but the real problem may actually be that much of the male population sees no benefit in talking through problems.

So where does that leave us, as parents?

Well, I've learned that I need to erase the idea of talking as a panacea. Boys (and men) generally don't find as much solace and support in verbally sharing their problems as girls (and women) do. On a day-to-day level, this means that the odds of one of my sons pouring out his heart to me because he felt slighted by a friend are minimal, at best. That doesn't mean that my sons might not be hurt by their friends' actions or inactions; it just means that my boys are more likely to express their distress in other ways.

It means that I need to let go of the rejected feeling I sometimes experience when my boys rebuff my attempts to discuss their problems.

It also means that I, a mother of future men, need to teach my sons the value of talking through problems. They may never consider sharing their problems verbally to be emotionally therapeutic, but at the very least, I want my sons to learn that talking can be a good way to identify the root causes of problems, to brainstorm possible solutions and to problem solve.

I also want my sons to know that there are times when verbally expressing feelings is preferable to physically expressing them. In other words, I want my sons to learn that saying, "I'm upset because Joe ignored me at lunch today," is much more productive than stomping around the house or hitting their brothers.

It's a tough row to hoe. Our society programs girls to accept emotions and to talk through problems; it expects our sons to be strong and stoic. I'm working against cultural conditioning, and years of male indoctrination.

But I want to teach my sons that there are other ways of being male. I want them to know that being male doesn't have to equal denying your emotions and suppressing your inner thoughts. I want boys who feel safe being boys, but who are also unafraid to act against male stereotypes.

How about you? Will you join me?