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