The Education Lessons of John Wayne

Character Education Builds Strong Students

True grit. I hear that phrase and memories of watching John Wayne (AKA Rooster Cogburn) movies with my father tumble through my mind. But school officials in a few academies across the country have a renewed vision for grit – one that focuses on strong character traits as much (if not more so) than algebra or chemistry.

What is Character Education?

A new education model being pursued by those affiliated with KIPP Academies based on strength of character is catching a wave of enthusiasm – and some criticisms. Since its inception in 1994, KIPP Academy has been approaching education with a new model based on research conducted by Dr. Martin Seligman, Dr. Chris Peterson, and Dr. Angela Duckworth. In particular, KIPP NYC (in New York City) has been a leading model for other academies across the country.

The research by Seligman, Peterson, and Duckworth has identified 24 character strengths that are important for leading productive, conscious, and enthused lives and that range from grit to love to spirituality. (You can see a complete, descriptive list of these 24 strengths in this supplemental KIPP file.) From this list of 24, the KIPP NYC school focuses heavily on 7 specific character traits.

Grit – The administrators at KIPP define this as the combination of persistence and resilience, and it is demonstrated by the ability to finish things that are started, the effort to continue trying even after failure, and the ability to focus on work independently.

Zest – Students approach life with excitement and are actively engaged, participating in events and activities with enthusiasm that helps to engage others.

Gratitude – Students are taught that gratitude means they are appreciative of the good things that happen, and that they recognize and demonstrate appreciation of others and the opportunities in all of their lives.

Optimism – As students are taught in an environment of optimism, they learn how to get over setbacks and have faith that effort has the ability to improve the future.

Curiosity – Students are encouraged to explore new things, ask questions, listen to the ideas of others, and enjoy learning for the sake of learning.

Social Intelligence – Rooted in empathy, social intelligence requires that students are aware of the feelings of others, and are able to adapt to various environments and situations. They learn to solve conflicts with others and demonstrate respect.

Self-Control – Students learn self-discipline that is applied to various aspects of their lives. In school work self-control means being prepared for class and resisting the temptations of distractions to their academic studies. Self-control on an interpersonal level means that students are taught to allow for the ideas of others without interruption, to demonstrate polite and respectful behaviors, and to remain calm even in the face of criticism.

Grades for Character

Not only does KIPP NYC teach character strengths, they have developed a grading scale for these specific traits as well. Instead of only a GPA (Grade Point Average), students are held accountable on a CPA (Character Point Average). Teachers assess the students on the seven character traits, and assign grades based on how far the student has come, and how far he or she has yet to go in character education. The students I saw being interviewed about this CPA approach had clear understandings of their own strengths of character, as well as which areas they needed to improve and why (which is a lot more than many adults might be able to do).

How to Implement Character Education in Schools

One of the things I love most about the approach of the KIPP Academy is that it is not trying to sell this approach like an infomercial – requiring stretched out and unknown payment plans. The administrators are so enthused and educated about their own model of education that they want other people to use it and they help provide the tools to do so. You can visit their website for QA materials, character development supplemental downloads, a Framework for Excellent Teaching, and titles for further reading. In short, their approach for implementing character in schools includes:

  1. Believe it and model it.
  2. Name it – label the character traits so the kids understand their goals.
  3. Find it – use real world and fictional examples of the desired character traits.
  4. Feel it – help others find the positive effects of character strengths.
  5. Integrate it – use activities in the classroom that are dual-purposed for academics and character strength.
  6. Encourage it – use “mindset praise” that helps to build strength of character.
  7. Track it – record and track character goals (they use the CPA model).

Criticisms of the Character Education Approach

Interestingly, not all parents are thrilled with the approaches taken in KIPP academies. In the generation of “feel good parenting”, where kids get trophies for trying, reward stickers for what should be commonplace, and are protected from failures, teaching kids to thrive on failures as they develop such traits as grit can make parents feel uncomfortable. Some parents worry that as the emphasis is placed on character, the academic preparation and rigor will suffer.

Those who are proponents of character education, however, point to numerous studies that show that character and the ability to experience failure and come out the other side is much more indicative of success than academic letter grades.

The KIPP approach is not only a valid and valuable approach to education, but one that we as parents can use in our own homes. After all, if we don’t teach strength of character, what good does the rest of education do for our children?

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Birth Order Blues

How to Help the Youngest in the Family Thrive

I’ll never be better, faster, taller, or smarter. I’ll never get to do something first.

If you have more than one child, chances are your youngest one has felt things similar to this at one time or another. It is like working at a company where you know that you will always be the “newbie” – the one who learns from others, walks the trails that others blaze, and feels tucked in the shadows. For the youngest in the family this can be amplified if older siblings are go-getters and always on the prowl to try something new. As the youngest in our family once said, “At this rate, what will be left for me to do first?”

Does Birth Order Say it All?

If you’re dealing with the youngest-child blues and wondering if it is a hopeless situation, you’re not alone. Researchers have long debated the ramifications of birth order, and psychologists have been working for years to find ways to address some of the issues that it reportedly raises. And let’s face it – as parents we are caught between a rock and a hard place. Birth order is inevitable – and after a while – not easily changeable. (Unless you go all out and add more children to your home – but someone will still always be the oldest, the youngest, and someone in between.)

Much has been written about the topic of birth order, and the consensuses keep changing. Some strongly believe that birth order is as vital to who your child becomes as your everyday parenting skills, and others believe it has little if anything to do with personality development. Joshua Hartshone studies how birth order affects our children, and he claims that new research shows that birth order does have measurable effects on children. According to Hartshone, these effects are more noticeable as the size of the family increases – the more siblings a child has, the more likely there will be that birth order stereotypes are present.

However, how we let or don’t let birth order severely impact our children is a little bit more in our control. If we decide to just let birth order dictate the development of our kids, we’ve just set them on a path toward a self-fulfilling prophesy. So even though Hartshone and others in his camp will argue that the youngest in families are more likely to have lower IQs and be overly coddled by older siblings, we as parents can do things to minimize these stereotypical traits of birth order.

Give the Youngest the View from the Top

So I’m the youngest in my family, having an older brother and sister just a few years ahead of me. And I don’t resemble much of the stereotypical traits of a “youngest” child. I don’t find myself to be humorous or artsy, but instead find myself to need order and thrive on plans and goals. But I still remember feeling like the youngest. And there are days when I see my own youngest child struggling with those thoughts.

When my youngest child is feeling the frustration of never getting to do something first (which in the minds of kids is a huge determining factor for self-esteem, and closely tied with doing it best), I try to give him the opportunity to do something new. We aren’t talking about anything extravagant. I am focusing on small, tangible actions that get to be his first, as well as the first in the family.

Ask your youngest what special thing they would like to “do first” in the family. In a recent conversation with my youngest, he simply said he wants to be the first in the family to do cup stacking (yep – I raised my eyebrows at first, too). But this simple request means that no sibling has attempted to do this, so no one will be saying, “Let me show you how I do this.” (I even went so far as to outlaw the older siblings from taking on this new hobby initially while he gets his feet wet.)

Get excited – even if you’ve been there, done that. Sometimes we forget that our enthusiasm might wane for the simple things. Maybe it is that with our oldest we are so nervous about getting things right, that we seem more excited when she rides the bike for the first time, has her first sleepover, etc., but we need to remember that for our youngest – it is still an excitement worthy first.

Don’t do things for the youngest he can do (or try to do) by himself. Our oldest kids had to get things done on their own by necessity – maybe our hands were full with younger siblings or they just didn’t have older siblings around showing them how to do everything. When our youngest ones have the same (sometimes frustration-causing) expectations and opportunities to figure things out solo, they build their confidence and capabilities.

The birth order of my kids isn’t a changeable variable at this point. However, I am trying to make sure that how I interact with them and what I expect of them isn’t dictated by the year they entered our family. I don’t want my youngest to feel that he is always the “newbie” and never the trail blazer. So we are now entering the world of cup speed stacking. Who knows where this first might take him, but he will be the one leading the way.

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Fasten Your Seatbelts

Fasten Your Seatbelts

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Keep your hands inside the car at all times – parenting teens can be a bumpy ride. This is perhaps never more accurate than when those teens get their driver licenses. Before you go down that driver education road with your teens, help prepare them for the responsibilities that lie ahead. Get them engaged, thinking, and conscious of safe driving habits. And fasten your seatbelts.

Give the Play-by-Play

When my kids were babies and toddlers I gave them the play-by-play as a way to strengthen their vocabulary and engage them in their surroundings. “Look at that tiny bird. It’s looking for food in our flowers. Look at how the wings flap so very fast. We call it a hummingbird.” Now that my kids are older and there are teenagers in the house I’m returning to the play-by-play method with more intensity as a way to teach driver awareness. Even though the kids would probably rather listen to their iPods or be reading their books while I drive, I try to reign them in with the play-by-play of the sometimes boring, but still important, rules of the road.

  • “I’m not passing that farm truck now because…”
  • “I’m slowing down at this intersection, even though there aren’t stoplights, because…”
  • “I’m parking like this because…”

Being a passenger in a vehicle is a very passive activity. When we consistently share with our kids (even when they’re not asking for it) why we are making the driving decisions that we are, we are teaching them about so many important rules of the road. There is more to driving than just knowing the laws – safe driving means making good, conscious decisions.

Engage them With Questions

Keep your teens thinking about how they might make safe driving decisions by asking them questions when you drive (this doesn’t have to be rapid-fire quizzing – just engaged conversation).

  • “Which lane do you think I need to be in by the time I get to the stoplight?”
  • “What did that blue car just do that shows the driver made a dangerous decision?”
  • “Where do you think would be a good place to park at the mall?”

Let Them Navigate

Even though our kids are riding right along with us when we go to school, church, and the store, it doesn’t mean that they always understand precisely how to navigate there themselves, especially when you are driving in a larger city. Throw in some One Way streets and road construction detours and a new driver might get quickly confused.

  • Teach them to navigate (without using GPS) by having them be the GPS system. You’re still the driver, they are just going to see if they can get you from point A to point B.
  • Let them get you lost if they aren’t sure. It is much better to just make mistakes as the navigator than as the navigator who is also the new driver – and is feeling very stressed because she can’t find the dry cleaners.
  • Teach them alternative routes. Things like road construction, accidents, and weather can all impact driving routes. Help save them future driving stresses by teaching them alternative routes when you’re still the one behind the wheel.

Other Rules of the Road for New Drivers

  • Park by streetlamps and under parking lights, even if it is daylight when you arrive at your destination. It is much safer and easier to walk to your car in a well-lit area.
  • Before you walk to your car, have your keys ready and your cell phone accessible.
  • Know where the incidentals are located in the car – things like the ice scraper, map, and tire gauge.
  • Know where the cell phone charger is and use it as needed – just make sure you plug it in and place it in a secure location where you don’t need to touch it before you put the car in drive.
  • Above all, if you don’t think your teen is ready for the responsibility of driving, it is OK to say no to them when they bring home that driver education release form. The rest of the driving world thanks you for using your best judgment.

Parenting is a journey – and even though some days I wish that parenting teens came with an insurance policy all its own, I am getting more comfortable with the increasing levels of independence that this transition time brings my teens (and me). Teenage drivers can scare the pants right off of you, but if we give our kids proactive tools before they even take the permit test, we help keep them and everyone else safe. Happy trails.

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What’s for Dinner?

It is an unavoidable fact: kids are hungry. Almost all of the time – especially those teenagers! Somewhere between school, work, football practice, LEGO league, homework, and laundry, parents all over are trying to find ways to prepare meals for their kids. It might be easier to throw a frozen pizza in the oven, hit the drive-thru, or serve cereal (again), but we know that these aren’t the best choices for their healthy growth – and often our budgets. With 5 kids in the house this year, and 3 of them teens, I’m getting back into my school year cooking routines: easy, healthy, budget-friendly, and taste-bud friendly for the whole family.

Make Ahead Meals for Busy Families

On Sunday afternoons while the football game and the football fans blare from the basement, I get the weekly meals started with these family-friendly recipes. (In our house protein is a priority for all of the guys who are consistently running – literally, training, and just busy growing, so I start with a protein source like chicken).

Chicken is King

Take approximately 1 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts per family member (for me that is 7 pounds – or 7 large breasts) and place them in a roasting pan or baking dish. Add 1-2 cans of chicken broth (depending upon how much chicken you need). Cover and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 2 hours, checking every 20 minutes after the first hour to make sure there is enough moisture – add water if needed.

Prepare the Extra Side Dishes

While the chicken is cooking, take your favorite lettuce and prepare (wash and chop) enough for 2 salads for each family member for the week. Also prepare other salad fixings that your family likes:

  • Chopped tomatoes
  • Diced peppers and onions
  • Shredded carrots
  • Chopped broccoli
  • Black olives
  • Cucumbers

Take 2-4 selections of fresh fruit the kids like and prepare them for the week. If these are things like apples and bananas, your prep work is done. However, you can also cut and chop other fruits like

  • Strawberries or raspberries
  • Watermelon
  • Honeydew
  • Cantaloupe
  • Oranges
  • Kiwi

Place the chopped fruit in reusable containers that you can serve from during the week. I also like to keep small containers of fruit dip in the fridge to entice the kids to eat more fruit, and it doubles as dessert and satisfies the sweet tooth. You can buy a small tub of caramel fruit dip, or make a cream cheese one by adding softened cream cheese with powdered sugar and a teaspoon or so of vanilla.

Select 2 varieties of whole grain pastas – I like to use spaghetti, rotini, or penne. Prepare each pasta type separately according the box directions (add a teaspoon of olive oil to the boiling water to help keep the pasta from sticking too much). Drain each pasta type and rinse with cold water. Set these pastas in plastic storage containers and place them in the fridge for later in the week.

Remove the chicken and it’s time to start making meals! Separate the chicken into 4 sections – ¼ for each chicken meal, shredding or cutting it into bite sized pieces. Store each section in separate containers, and keep the broth with one of the sections. You can prepare most of the meals ahead of time on Sunday, or get at least all of the prep work out of the way so you’re just adding the finishing touches during the week.

Meal #1 – Chicken Tacos

Take approximately ¼ of the chicken you prepared and add it to a stove-top pan, shredding it with forks. The chicken should be tender and easy to shred. Add either a packet of taco seasoning mix (appropriate to the amount of chicken you are using) or your own combination of spices, ½ cup of water, and sauté the chicken taco mixture. You can stretch the meat by adding a can of refried beans or cooked brown rice to your mixture. Serve with your salad fixings, tortillas, shredded cheese, and sour cream.

Meal #2 – Chicken Salad

This meal can be served for dinner during the week or sent as part of a school or work lunch. Take ¼ of the chicken and add it to 2-3 cups of the cooked pasta. Toss in leftover chopped veggies from the salad, drizzle it with olive oil, sprinkle in fresh or dried oregano, basil, and black pepper, and then top with feta cheese (or another favorite cheese). I like to put the salad in single serving reusable plastic containers to use whenever needed.

Recipe variation – Use the chicken and noodles, but add cheese chunks, ½ bag of frozen peas, and a dressing made from mayonnaise – enough to coat the salad mixture (I use Miracle Whip Free), 1 Tablespoon of mustard, and 1 Tablespoon of sugar. This is my daughter’s favorite version – and you can add shredded carrots or celery, too.

Meal #3 – Pasta Bar

When you’re ready for dinner, remove one of the pastas from the fridge and ¼ of the chicken. Rinse the pasta under hot water. Place the chicken in a sauté pan with 1-2 Tablespoons of butter, fresh or dried basil, and 1 teaspoon of chopped garlic. Saute the chicken and serve over the pasta. Set out your salad fixings as well, and your family can add their own extra toppings – olives, peppers, etc. – and top it off with shredded cheese. Serve fruit on the side.

Meal #4 – Breakfast Bake

Spray a cake pan with non-stick cooking spray and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Take 2 slices of bread for each family member and cut into cubes, or have your younger kids just tear them into bite-sized pieces . We use our wheat sandwich bread, but you can get creative and use cinnamon raisin bread or another favorite. Spread the bread chunks in the cake pan.

For every 3-4 slices of bread, crack one egg into a medium bowl and whisk. Pour eggs over the bread chunks and sprinkle 1 teaspoon of cinnamon over the top. Bake until the bread mixture is golden brown.

Serve with the fresh fruit you cleaned and cut earlier in the week. You can even add apple chunks, raspberries, blueberries, or strawberries to the bread mixture before baking. Add a little maple syrup on top and dinner is served!

Meal #5 – Chicken Soup

Use the chicken broth and another ¼ of the chicken to make an easy and healthy soup. Try these variations.

  • Add one can of cream of chicken soup to the broth and chicken. Stir in a package of whole wheat Gnocchi (potato dumplings you can find in your pasta aisle) for an Italian treat. Cook according to the instructions on the Gnocchi – usually just a few minutes until the Gnocchi are floating.
  • Add one can of cream of chicken soup and 2 cups of cooked wild rice to the broth and heat over low before serving.
  • Add some of the leftover salad fixings – carrots, broccoli, peppers, etc. – and a second can of chicken broth. Stir in some of your penne or rotini noodles for an easy chicken noodle soup.

Life with kids is busy. And kids are always hungry. Satisfy both their appetites and your need for some time-savers by planning a few easy meals ahead of time. Don’t forget to get the kids in the kitchen, too!

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Save the Last Dance

But Apparently Not for Daughters

Sometimes we are so worried about teaching our children about equality and warning them against the evils of discrimination that we forget about common sense. We not only put on kid-friendly gloves, but we sanitize the surroundings and color everything the same shades so that we don’t risk hurting feelings or making anyone feel “different” about themselves. And common sense is lost.

School Bans Father-Daughter Dance and Mother-Son Baseball

Recent reports have been unfolding about a Rhode Island school’s decision last May to ban traditional father-daughter dances after one single mother complained to the school board that her daughter was feeling left out of the event because her child did not have a father or male role model with whom to attend the dance. The school had long held the traditional father-daughter dance (which didn’t mandate that the accompanying “date” was actually a father) and a traditional mother-son baseball game (which is now also banned). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) even got on board, issuing a statement.

“The school district recognized that in the 21st century, public schools have no business fostering the notion that girls prefer to go to formal dances while boys prefer baseball games. This type of gender stereotyping only perpetuates outdated notions of ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ activities and is contrary to federal law.”

The ACLU, unfortunately, isn’t recognizing the fact that schools have the business of fostering healthy children. According to research, healthy children have positive relationships with adult role models of both genders. Whether they are dances, baseball games, or a picnic lunch at the school, these specific opportunities for children to be encouraged to recognize and build strong relationships with adult role models are needed in schools.

The Cranston Superintendent, Judith Lundsten, said that, “…this is a public school system, and under no circumstances should we be isolating any child from full participation in school activities and events based on gender.”

This is the reasoning that demonstrates the loss of common sense. Boys and girls are different. Biologically, emotionally, and psychologically. Different does not mean better or worse. Apples and bananas are both fruit, but they are not the same. Why do we keep trying to only allow for one type of something to exist? But alas, this still does not address the real issue of this matter. The dance was banned under the guise that it treats girls and boys differently, but the real context is that the dance was banned because family dynamics are changing and political correctness colors the waters a muddy brown.

Why Dads (and Father Figures) Should Dance with Daughters

The ingredients of modern families are changing, but that doesn’t mean that the needs of children are drastically changing as well. Research shows that children who have strong adult role models, particularly of both genders, will grow up to be healthier adults. These facts don’t make single parents less effective, loving, or caring. These facts mean that as community members we need to make sure that our boys and our girls have positive influences from adults of both genders.

We need to make sure children have opportunities to develop and nurture these types of relationships, especially if they don’t have them available in the setting of the home. Dismissing the importance that opposite-gender relationships have for our kids because it is uncomfortable to acknowledge that kids need both men and women in their lives, even when there are not both moms and dads in the homes, does a disservice to our kids.

Girls and boys who develop strong and healthy relationships with parental role models of both genders tend to do better in school, have fewer behavior problems, and are less likely to develop depression. They are also less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. This begs the questions:

Why would we want to ban events that support these relationships, when these types of relationships are so vital to raising healthy children?

What can we do to encourage positive, nurturing relationships between our daughters and their adult male role models, and our sons and their adult female role models, especially when kids are living without both Mom and Dad in the home?

What can be done that doesn’t require dances to be cancelled and kids to be raised in a world we paint grey?

  • Call it a Daughter Dance – girls could take fathers, step-dads, neighbors, uncles, or even a friend from church.
  • Provide mentoring programs in schools and communities that pair children with adult role models of the opposite gender.
  • Work with parents who don’t feel their kids have access to adult role models, beginning with educating parents on the values of these types of relationships.

We can’t ignore and sweep away the facts that girls and boys are different, and that kids need adult role models of both genders. Let’s stop banning things that celebrate differences and start encouraging families to provide kids with as many opportunities for engaged, nurturing relationships.

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7 Fun Fall Family Activities

Say that 7 times fast, or just get busy on one of the projects below! Fall is a busy time of year with back to school schedules, Friday night football games, and evenings that offer less sunlight. However, families can take advantage of these changes in the season with a few easy, inexpensive fall activities.

1. Add a Family Member (or at least a Homemade Scarecrow)

Build a scarecrow to stand and welcome your friends and family to your garden or yard, and make sure you get your kids in on the action. Years ago I gathered the kids with my limited construction ability and we built a lovable scarecrow who visits our garden every fall.

  • Materials
  • 2 sections of narrow – at least 2” inch wide – wood (1 for the arms and 1 for the body). You can even use scrap sections of baseboard trim or curtain rods you find at the local lumber yard. The length of the wood can be determined by the shirt and pants you plan to dress on your scarecrow.
  • Screws and drill or nails and hammer
  • Circle of wood or other material for the head. My husband cut the head for me out of scrap plywood, but you can also use the bottom tray from a plastic flower pot, a circular picture frame, or the plastic lid to a 5 gallon pail.
  • Spare clothing – pants, shirt, garden or canvas gloves, an old floppy hat, scarf, or anything else you can rummage from the back of the closet or the sale at the thrift store.
  • Let the kids paint the face or you can even use some sharpies on the plastic lid.

Assemble as a family and don’t forget to give your new scarecrow friend a name!

2. Apple prints

Take flour sack dish towels or plain cotton napkins (you can even make your own square napkins from a yard of white or off-white cotton cloth), then take an apple that has been cut in half. Dry the juice from the inside meat part and have the kids paint the cut side in red, orange, or yellow fabric paint, then press the apple onto the corner or along the edge of the cloth. Let the print dry and present these as a special Thanksgiving or Christmas gift.

3. Painted Gourds

If your kids are itching to carve pumpkins, satisfy their pleas by giving them gourds or miniature pumpkins they can decorate. Let them use markers, googly-eyes, glitter glue, or even foam stickers to decorate unique fall decorations. You can even tie colorful ribbons to the stems and create a trail of Darn Gourd Friends.

4. Make a Mummy for Mom

This one is especially for dads… help your kids plant a mum plant in a plastic pot for Mom. The catch is that the kids first decorate the pot with a face, either painting it or adding it with markers. The mum flowers (think yellow, deep golden red/brown) become the hair and you’ve got your own little mini mummy for Mom to thank her for all of her hard work – and it’s not even Mother’s Day!

5. Caramel Apples with a Twist

Prepare caramel apples with a caramel wrap or coating, but before the caramel sets have the kids roll the caramel apple in a saucer filled with their choice of “extra” topping: chopped nuts, raisins, cookie sprinkles, chocolate chips, broken bits of candy corn, etc.

6. Sock Seed Exploration

Take a pair of old socks – the fuzzier the better – and have your kids put them on their feet and pull them up as high as they can. Then hike (without shoes) through the yard and woods. Carefully remove the socks, keeping the outside on the outside. Place the sock in a shallow plastic or aluminum dish (old pie tins work well), and have your kids sprinkle them with water and put the kids in charge of keeping the socks moist every morning with a watering can. Place the dish in the sunlight and watch for the next few weeks as your old socks start to sprout tiny plants from the fallen fall seeds that were collected – a great conversation starter for the topic of the plant life cycle!

7. Pressed Leaf Bookmarks

Have the kids fill a bag with colorful fall leaves, then take those and press them between the pages of large books (use waxed paper to protect the pages). After a few weeks, remove the pressed leaves and have the kids either glue them onto tag-board to make bookmarks, or send the leaves through a laminator to create unique 2-sided bookmarks. Hole punch the tops and have the kids tie ribbon through them or create special name tags. These make great Christmas gifts from the kids, and you’re months ahead of schedule!

Don’t forget to make homemade pumpkin pies (and stick them in the freezer for the holidays), apple cider, and stock up on cocoa for these cool weeks ahead. When you take a few minutes each week to create special memories with your kids, you are building the platforms for their identities, dreams, and hopes for the future. I hope this fall is kind and full of warm family fun for all of you!

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The Language of Teens

Learning to Talk (and Listen) to Your Teenager

“…don’t worry that your teenager is not always listening – worry that he or she is always watching.”

Scary though, right? Our teenagers are primed and ready to learn from us, even when we may not want them to at every moment (hey – even parents have not-so-shining moments). With the recent addition of a foreign exchange student that brings the teenage total in my house to 3, and that number can easily and exponentially multiply when friends come over to watch the game or just hang out together.

With all of these teenage moments fluttering through my house and the responsibility I know I have to keep trying a little more each day to be better for them, I’ve been reaching for all of the help I can get. This is what led me to Raising Your Teenager – 5 Crucial Skills for Moms and Dads, by Dr. Roger McIntire. Five isn’t such a high number. This seems doable, right?

The 5 Skills Parents Need to Parent Teens

In his book, Dr. McIntire assembles a list of 5 skills that parents need in order to successfully parent teens through those turbulent years.

  1. Know how to talk with your teen.
  2. Know the family “games”. These are the family negotiations and maneuvering that can make or break the roles in family relationships.
  3. Steer through the minefield of bad habits. Parents of teens are consistently on the lookout for bad habits – too much TV time, poor eating habits, dangerous choices with friends, etc. and it is important to learn the early warning signs.
  4. Teach school strategies. School is an enormous portion of life for typical teens, and when parents work with their teens as partners and give them tools to succeed, the benefits are lifelong lasting.
  5. Coach about time, money, and happiness. As parents we need to make sure we teach our kids about time management, money management, and the real attributes of a happy life.

Somehow the number 5 suddenly seems much larger when I think about it applied to these concepts. The first skill alone, talking with teens, is probably one of the most challenging things for parents to do effectively – I know it has been a learning process for me. One lonely number doesn’t seem like enough for such a large and important goal. But here goes nothing – I’ve been trying the steps McIntire encourages parents to use (some of which are common sense reminders), and I do see the effectiveness. It just takes work and patience.

The First Step – Talking with Teens

Even if you’re speaking the same language when it comes to phonetics, teens often seem to hold their own cultural language.  For this reason McIntire suggests several strategies for communicating effectively with teens.

Manage body behavior. Why are you looking at me like that? I’ve heard that more than once from my kids, and I’ve realized that I really need to work more on my physical reaction to their words. Without even realizing it I can give a slight scrunch of my nose or furrow of even 3 eyebrow hairs which immediately puts my children on the defensive. Keep eye contact, unfold those arms, and relax the eyebrows.

Slow the pace of your conversation. When we go on and on we dominate the conversations and decrease the opportunities for our kids to contribute to the conversation. Instead they feel like they have a small window of time to speak, and it becomes like a dart game for them – throwing words that sometimes feel like sharp-tipped darts.

Don’t try to win the conversation. I love this piece of advice. If we stop looking at conversations with our teens as battles that have to be won, we change the tone and bring out more true conversation.

Give it time. Our lives our busy, but our conversations with our kids shouldn’t be rushed. They sense the need for us to hurry up and get our point across (leaving them little room for contribution). If the kids bring up a conversation topic that I know in my heart of hearts will take more time than the 3 minutes we have left before company walks through the door, I begin the conversation by telling them that what they have to say is important to me and I want to be able to have a good conversation about it, so some of it might have to “be continued”.

There are other great tips for talking with teens throughout McIntire’s book, and he goes on to further discuss ways to develop all 5 skill areas that parents need. He reminds parents that we aren’t going to like everything our teens say and do, but it doesn’t mean we need to keep those mild and really inconsequential moments at the forefront of our relationships. Perhaps his overall, practical approach is best summed up by his words regarding parenting strategies.

”The best parental strategy will include praising the good, ignoring the tolerable, and reacting with logical, mild, and repeatable consequences to the intolerable.”

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5 Science Resources for Kids

That Will Make Parents Smile, Too

I could hear one child giggle and say, “I don’t think it’s supposed to do that.” Those are the words that can strike fear in the heart of a parent, especially when that parent is me, loading the washing machine, and knowing that the boys were to be completing a science experiment in the kitchen. That one child was right – it wasn’t supposed to do that. The it was a concoction of split peas blended with meat tenderizer, dish soap, and salt combined with hydrogen peroxide in an effort to demonstrate how strands of DNA would appear. Nice idea.

The problem was that the hydrogen peroxide was actually supposed to be rubbing alcohol. But in the 30 seconds it took me to walk to the laundry room, my boys decided that since the rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide have both been used in our house to clean wounds that they both must be similar enough to be used. Wrong assumption. The result was a volcanic eruption of split pea lava oozing over my counters, and boys calling for “More paper towels!”. Mistakes like these don’t always teach our kids the intended lessons, but the lessons they teach are much longer lasting. My boys will forever know the difference between these two liquids, and they thoroughly understand the bubbly power of hydrogen peroxide.

5 Resources for Hands-On Science Experiments

Science experiments are wonderful ways for kids to get hands on learning about their world, and many of these experiments can be done with the basic ingredients you find in your own home. Whether you have bored kids on a rainy Saturday afternoon, are looking for science fair project inspiration, or homeschool like I do, these science experiments are great ways to get kids thinking about their world and how it works.

1. Science Bob – The name is simple but the science fun is enormous! The kids can make plastic milk or experiment with blobs in a bottle (think lava lamp). The great thing about Science Bob is that the science activities are fun, but there are added questions and ideas to turn the activity into an experiment. Most of the ingredients and pieces of equipment needed for these activities can be found in your home, or are extremely inexpensive to purchase.

2. Weird Science Kids – Bring the cool back to weird and try some of the experiments at Weird Science Kids. One of my favorites is this oil spill experiment where kids can play around with different substances to determine which ones might best clean up oil spills (on miniature scales). This type of timely and environmentally rich science exploration can help build a stronger sense of awareness and responsibility, besides teaching about basic science.

3. National Geographic for Kids – This classic source has some easy and meaningful experiments for kids, and as I learned in a moment of chaos, can prepare adults, too. Last Easter Eve my children and their cousins were coloring Easter eggs when 2 of them started complaining that their eggs were losing their shells (I think the word “disintegrating” was used). I flashed back to this squishy-eggsperiment and added to it the fact that Dad had prepared the egg coloring mixtures (likely without reading all of the directions), and I was able to deduce that the kids were trying to dye their eggs in pure vinegar, instead of the vinegar and water (heavy on the water) combination it was supposed to be. The “eggsperiment” they had conducted weeks before was now in full-force test mode – a teachable moment even if we lost all those eggs.

4. The Science Explorer – Great science projects both online and in their books. I love to use these easy yet profound experiments with my kids, and use both the books and the online ideas. This one has a fun and thought-provoking experiment about whether or not hot and cold water mix. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that these easy activities are great starting points for interesting science fair projects, and their instructions are easy to follow and filled with tips to develop the experiments further.

5. Experiland – This site helps to bring out the mad scientist and even dares your child to try to not have fun. It is geared for elementary students and offers a wide variety of instructions for experiments. Three things to love about this resource: the fun atmosphere, instructions that include prep time and difficulty ratings, and diagrams as needed. The downside is that if you want to learn more about why the experiment worked or didn’t, or how to take the experiment to the next level, you have to purchase the e-books to have access to this supplemental information. However, the e-books are reasonably priced and worth it, especially if you have a science enthusiast or are a homeschooler looking for supplementary curriculum like me.

Science sometimes gets messy – and sometimes there is split-pea-lava exploding in the kitchen. But when we give our kids lots of opportunities for scientific experimentation and exploration, we are helping them stretch their ideas and rub away some of those hindering preconceived notions (like how rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide are about the same thing). And maybe someday the kids will come full circle and use these scientific studies as a launching pad to discover and develop new, organic cleaning supplies for busy moms. Busy moms who have to supervise the cleaning of split-pea-lava.

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Avoid Homework Headaches

Avoid Homework Headaches

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Help Your Child Build Effective Study Habits

Memory Makers

It turns out that those fancy concept maps your kids might create – taking notes and studying exclusively from the information, highlighting as they go, isn’t as effective as just thinking about it. Researchers have been looking at the best ways to improve information recall, such as that needed for a history or science test. What they have found is that when students read information, then put the information away and review it without notes, their retention levels are greater than if they rely on reviewing their notes and concepts maps.

Kids who rely on their notes for studying aren’t able to effectively teach their brains to independently recall information from memory. Students who study with their notes are often more confident about their knowledge and preparation, but their confidence is a false sense of security. Students who use alternative retention methods are more likely to remember information than those confident note-studying students.

“It may be surprising to realize that there is such a disconnect between what students think will afford good learning and what is actually best. We, as educators, need to keep this in mind as we create learning tools and evaluate educational practices,” he [Karpicke] said.

It is the unassisted recall studying that is required for most students in order to have higher levels of retention. Some ways to encourage your kids to study for this improved recall include:

  • Encourage them to read a page or two (depending on the depth of the material being covered), then close the book and try to recall important information. Then have them go back and check to make sure they recalled it accurately.
  • After your child has read a chapter in his textbook, have him verbally summarize the highlights for you (take notes – either mentally or written – to help make sure he is on the right path).
  • Encourage your child to draw connections between information being studying. Drawing inferences includes a higher level of thinking that can help develop further recall connections in the brain. Kids are sometimes more in the mode of regurgitating what is presented, but if they are taught to look for ways to connect the dots on their own, they will see the bigger picture.

Allow for Electronics

If you’re having the battles between homework and technology gadgets, make room for some compromises. While we as parents can’t imagine successfully doing homework with iPods, computers, and cell phones constantly beckoning us, our kids can hardly imagine a world without these constant connections. Instead of trying to fight a battle to keep them in a world where you existed as a child, work to find ways to meet in the middle.

  • Designate “dedicated homework” times. In our family this means that for at least 1 hour each day our daughter works on homework without a cell phone or iPod in sight (laptops only for schoolwork). Beyond that hour she can have limited access to those pieces of technology.
  • Know how much time homework requires technology. I was very surprised to recently learn of a professor who requested students to send him texts with the answers to quiz questions. If our kids are being required to use technology in and out of the classroom, we need be clear on the differences between academic expectations and random digital socializing.
  • Try to find more ways for your child to use technology well with homework, and watch out for those things that can be hinderances. It turns out that when students use computers to complete writing assignments that their language test scores improve (even when those tests are not given with a computer). Not surprisingly, the more a student plays non-academic video games, the lower overall academic scores become.

Assess Learning Styles

If your child attends a public school, chances are likely that he or she is expected to engage in classroom activities designated by the teacher. However, when it comes to homework time, make sure that you understand your child’s unique learning style and find ways to support it outside of the classroom. If you’re not sure, take this quick survey to see which one might apply best to your child.

  • Kinesthetic learners might need to move around more during their studies. This might appear to be fidgeting, but it could just be what your child’s brain needs. Let your son study his spelling words while bouncing a basketball or throwing a football, or maybe your daughter does better when she is surrounded by her favorite soft, furry blanket and the cat on her lap she can pet while she studies – kinesthetic learners thrive on combining movement and tactile exploration with academics.
  • Visual learners should have plenty of good lighting and as many resources like textbooks available as possible. Find other ways to support your visual learner, such as watching supplementary documentaries that reinforce the topic. Also be sure to give your visual learner a place to do homework that is free of distractions – such as your radio, phone conversation, or a lot of movement by others in the family as these can be heavy distractions.
  • Auditory learners can find homework challenging because their teacher is no longer there to explain things or restate ideas. This is when you can encourage your auditory learner to read aloud (even older kids can do this – I often edit manuscripts this way). The homework area should also be free of other auditory distractions (unless soft background music is helpful for your child).

Helping your kids develop good study habits is a lifelong process (but one that we sometimes only have the energy to deal with one day at a time). Take it one day at a time and learn enough about your kids to help them manage their homework highways. Just like teaching them how to do laundry and make more than macaroni-n-cheese might not be thrilling today, it will have payback in full in the future.

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Do Moms Really Need Hobbies?

You know the moms – the ones who knit gorgeous scarves for entire villages while they simultaneously cheer at all of the appropriate times during their kids’ soccer games, decorate birthday cakes that rival those on Cake Boss, or decoupage their way into the Guggenheim. These are the moms who have hobbies that make them look like superstar moms and women. Their talents and efforts go far beyond ironing the Sunday clothes, making the best PB J in the house, or chaperoning the field trips every month. But do these superstar hobbies make for better moms – better than those of us who get tired thinking about taking on “hobbies”? Or do we as parents just need a broadened view of hobby?

The Pressure for Moms to Have Legitimate Hobbies

I was recently filling out a questionnaire with my children that required us to describe each family member (personalities, hobbies, etc.). This group discussion was quite enthusiastic and loud, that is, until it came time for the row by my name. My kids sat silently. Pondering – just what does Mom actually like to do for a hobby?

“Well, you…”

“Sometimes you….”

“You like to write, but that’s your job…

“I think maybe I’ve seen you…”

All of these sentences trailed off as they began to realize they didn’t think those things sitting on the edges of their tongues qualified as hobbies. One child did finally offer up gardening, which I readily agreed is turning into a hobby I thoroughly enjoy. And then another child summed it up – your family.

Before you think to yourself – family is not a legitimate hobby – think about these definitions of hobby.

  • “a diversion that occupies one’s time and thoughts”
  • “an auxiliary activity”

Or perhaps we should take a look at these synonyms for hobby.

  • Amusement
  • Art
  • Distraction
  • Diversion
  • Fun
  • Game
  • Labor of love

I read these definitions and I get visions of me playing kickball in the backyard, cheering at a football game, going to a concert at the library, and attending a tour of a museum exhibit. They are diversions, auxiliary activities, fun games, and sometimes – labors of love – and I am almost always accompanied by at least one child during these times.

5 Hobbies for Busy Moms to Try

Busy moms do need respite, relaxation, and a bit of escape every once in a while. However, if the thought of taking up a “legitimate hobby” is tiring and you’re just not sure you want knitting needles lying around for the boys to turn into weapons, change your definition of hobby and try one of these ideas that might give you food for the soul, a new perspective, or at least something to write down on the form under hobby.

1. Become an amateur photographer. You’re already toting around the camera to capture every moment of your kids’ lives. Take your interest in snapping shots of the kids and go a step further. Order some photography magazines to flip through while you’re waiting for the school bus, and see if your community education program offers beginning photography classes. Take the kids to exhibits by other photographers, and keep snapping away on your own time. Today it might not be a glamorous hobby that yields much more than dirt-smeared grins of toddlers, but you could be sowing your own seeds for a future behind the lens.

2. Scrapbook – even without the fancy supplies. Just being with a few photo storage boxes to sort the prints you already have floating through the drawers, and a flash drive to collect the images you want to print someday. Slowly increase your pace until you buy a pack of glue sticks and an album – and let yourself get excited over a few sheets of funky scrapbook paper. Before you know it you have completed your first page of the scrapbook that will be sitting out for your child’s graduation party someday – and maybe you can carve out time each week to do one more page while the kids read the Sunday comics with Dad.

3. Get into church. Sing in the church choir, work in the church flower beds, or help decorate for the holidays or special occasions. I do various services at our church, including baking and decorating tables for gatherings – and I get to have my kids by my side as I do these things so that I don’t have added stress of trying to find a sitter while I explore my hobby. If your church doesn’t already have committees established, maybe your passion for paperwork could help get those going!

4. Take a hike. Exercise activities like hiking and biking are not only good for the body, but the soul. And they are usually very kid-friendly activities. Make a plan to visit a new trail each week, or combine two hobbies in one and take pictures along the way to mark the transitions of the seasons as you keep going back to hike the same trail repeatedly.

5. Get wrinkly. Actually, make your food wrinkly. One of the easiest hobbies I found when my kids were younger was dehydrating foods. The only major investment is a food dehydrator, but there are several major returns. I am able to use the food in my house that is closing in on shelf life – like those bananas and apples that are almost too ripe. Then I wash the items, slice them, and spread them on a tray to dry. The drying is what takes a long time, but in the process of the machine doing the drying I still strangely feel like I am accomplishing something. The end product is a healthy snack for the family and a silent-high-five to myself.

If other well intentioned people encourage you to explore your options, or build yourself beyond motherhood in the form of a new hobby, make sure you take stock of what you already do and what you actually want to do. Then ask yourself if you enjoy doing what it is you are doing. Maybe it will turn out that all you really need is a little rest. Take a bath, take a nap, take 10 minutes to use the foot massager while you read a book (my favorite), but don’t feel like you need to take on a hobby you really aren’t enthused about just because the life you are leading as Mom doesn’t look neat and nice on the questionnaire line. Our lives as moms are legitimate – even if our hobbies don’t always make us look like it!

– Thanks, Theresa, for the great conversations about moms and hobbies. Put down the knitting needles. Slowly. And no one will get hurt!

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