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The perils of free-range parenting

It had to happen sooner or later. That's why I'd prepared my kids for that possibility, by explaining that adults were so unused to seeing kids allowed to be competent by themselves that they might call the cops on them. I can't control what other people do, but I can give my kids guidelines (to random stranger: don't give your name, but say firmly that your mother knows where you are and walk away; to uniformed police officer: give your name/age if asked, give my name and phone number, explain politely but firmly that your mother knows where you are and that you have permission to be there). Yesterday those guidelines were put to good use when someone pushed the panic button because they saw one of my kids on the street, alone.

I dropped off Middle Daughter (age 9) near the library around 11:45 and went to the dojo for class. She was going there to return books, browse and pick up new ones. Then she was to walk down to the dojo and read there with her big sister.

Eldest, who is now 11, has been walking to the library and back to the dojo by herself (a distance of maybe 600 metres) for some time now, and Middle Daughter has often been with her. But when she turned 9, I thought it was time to let MD try it by herself. It's a perfectly safe neighbourhood, but the street is fairly busy and you need to be careful. She knows how to do it, not that it stopped me from repeating it 400 times.

Anyway. She's done it by herself a couple of times now, and I'm confident she knows what she's doing. I dropped her off at a convenient spot, about a block from the library, and drove off. Almost right away a woman accosted her, demanding to know how old she was, why she wasn't in school, and where her parents were. She explained she was nine, homeschooled, and yes indeed her mother knew where she was, thank you very much. I don't mean to boast when I say this, but all three of my daughters are exceptionally well-spoken, especially for their respective ages. They are used to dealing with adults, and they can talk their way out of a tied-up paper bag. I have no doubt she explained everything clearly and concisely to that woman. But apparently that wasn't enough...

Half of me appreciates the concern. You see a kid by herself on the street during school hours, and you wonder what she's doing there and whether she's in trouble or not. My daughter walked away from that woman and entered the library. When she came out of there, her backpack heavy with books for herself and her two sisters, a policeman was waiting for her.

He asked her the same questions, and she gave the same answers. Evidently she did a good job of it because he left her with his card to give me, and coupons for a free drink at the nearby convenience store.

When I got out of my karate class and went to see how my two eldest daughters were doing (Youngest was with her dad), they were all weird. Eldest blurted out that someone had called the cops on her sister, who immediately tried to hide inside her shoulders, convinced she was about to get in trouble with me. I made her explain the story from beginning to end, then gave her a big hug. She did everything the way she was supposed to, and it wasn't her fault the woman who approached her overreacted. 

We did call the number on the policeman's card, and left a message thanking him for dealing with the matter sensibly. Obviously once a concerned citizen calls the cops fearing a child might be in trouble, they have to come check it out. But he was evidently convinced there was nothing to worry about in my daughter's situation, because he let her go on her merry way without undue fuss.

It's a sad world when adults think it's so wrong to see a kid walking by herself on a safe street in broad daylight that it's a matter for law enforcement. I encourage my daughters to be independent and street-smart, because those are very useful skills to have. But I'm not blind or stupid; my feisty 7-year-old is not allowed to walk to the library without an adult. But she's allowed to walk with her sisters to the local playground because there are no busy streets to cross. I know my kids and I make judgement calls all the time about what I think they can and cannot do. You see stories of parents being arrested for letting their kids roam freeishly - in the United States as well as in Canada. I'm aware that this is a risk of free-range parenting. But I refuse to have my kids grow up thinking their mother didn't trust them to walk 600 metres by themselves.

The secret to education

It feels like no progress ever happens without at least one terribly difficult moment each day. I've homeschooled for a decade now and I don't think there has been a single day that hasn't featured one kid balking or crying or suddenly remembering nothing at all about math.

It's always a struggle for me not to lose patience when these moments happen. Because dagnabbit, they do remember their math. And most everything else we've covered, for that matter. It's obvious why they balk. It's because they don't feel like working. Very few people innately enjoy the feeling of working on anything (rather a big problem, that), and children usually aren't into effort. Unless it's about a subject they picked themselves (I have one kid who knows so much about dinosaurs she's scary). What helps me not lose my temper is trying to remember that - as my friend Véronique put it - character comes before curriculum. I have to see beyond the balking and remember that making them work on their character - by controlling their emotions and forcing themselves to just push through the unpleasant stuff (ideally without tears), then they'll not only be allowed to play or do something fun, but they'll feel good about themselves. And next time it will be a teeny wee bit less hard to work on their character.

The progress is very slow, and it's very infuriating. But after the storm has passed I tell myself the only way I'll be able to teach them how best to approach a difficult and unpleasant task is to model it myself.

That means no temper tantrums for mom either. Darn it.

Experiencing public art - Cancer Survivors Park

In my day-to-day life as a homeschooling mother it’s important to find new ways to torture the children.

I mean, teach them stuff. In particular, I decided last year that 2017 would include a lot more arts (all disciplines combined; I’m not always systematic in my approach) and some art history than previous years. They’re bigger now, and they’re interested. At least, a little bit.

I bought a calendar from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that features an item from their collection for each day of the year. It’s a brilliant way to add just a dash of the stuff to our lives. And since we started pretty much from zero, we found it a great way into the subject. I also bought a curriculum online that includes painting styles and classical music, along with a random assortment of reference books that we can consult for fun. We also picked up a bunch of colouring books where kids get to colour masterpieces (they have the most amazing stuff available and for peanuts, too; so far we’re keen on Impressionists and especially Renoir).

The point is, I try very hard not to cram too much art because I don’t want them to be unduly overwhelmed and ultimately decide they hate it because there are too many names, dates and complicated words to remember. My focus at the moment is to show them a lot of art and just ask them what they like about it, or what they don’t like – emphasizing that there are no right or wrong answers. Every now and then they’ll recognize an artist and there’ll be shrieks of delight all around. Especially coming from me.

Today I thought I’d try something new. We would go and see a particular piece of public art, look at it, touch it, take pictures, and then talk about what we like/dislike about it. They picked, as their first choice, the Cancer Survivors park near the General Hospital and CHEO. This gave us a chance to discuss the intentions behind the installation, what feelings the artists wanted us to have, whether the statues looked real or not, and so on.

It was a pretty good experience. They weren’t thrilled, but they didn’t balk either, so I’ll count it as a success. Youngest wants to see more painting so maybe next time we’ll aim to find interesting graffiti to go and study. We’ll see how that goes.

Kids who enjoy reading? Imagine that…

The toy she picked after reporting the three books she'd read. It made her happy. 

The toy she picked after reporting the three books she'd read. It made her happy. 

Great little rant in the Boston Globe magazine about summer reading programs libraries have.

"In June, my 6-year-old son got very excited about our town’s summer reading program, in which kids who read for a certain number of hours vote for a movie that gets screened at the library. For several days, he reminded me we had to track the time we spent reading and check boxes off his chart so he could participate. But then he spent time with a California friend whose library’s summer reading program offers passes to Disneyland. A free movie suddenly seemed lame by comparison. He lost interest in the program and, for a while, in books, too.

Across the Commonwealth, public libraries encouraged schoolchildren to read this summer by offering prizes, often related to the big screen or sports, for those who met the minimum number of hours or books. In Arlington, we had the free movie. In Boston, if you read three books, you were entered into a raffle for Red Sox tickets. Maynard’s raffle was for a new bicycle.

There’s nothing wrong with movies, or sports, or amusement parks — or with programs aimed at spurring children to read. What’s wrong is the underlying message that books are a chore and that kids who endure them deserve payback.

Why, I wonder, are civic programs framed around this assumption? Is it because most kids don’t like books? Because adults don’t like them, either? Or because parents and educators and even doctors talk so much about The Importance of Reading that we have forgotten it once was (and still could be) a widely enjoyed activity?

Couldn’t agree more. But also: What else did you expect? The entire North American educational culture has been slowly but surely moving in the direction of making everything related to learning a chore for many long years now, with the result that kids grow up not valuing playing with their imaginations because that won’t be on the test. It’s been so long now that many of those young kids’ parents and teachers were raised that way. Kids are surrounded by people who think learning and reading is a hassle to get over with so we can get back to sucking screen.

Children start pre-school programs earlier and earlier; it’s not uncommon for two- or three-year-olds to begin their pre-K education in school-like settings where parents very much expect they will learn skills that will give them a leg up when the time comes to start junior kindergarten. Once there, little kids are swallowed up by an educational machine that makes them sit in rows and pay attention to what the teacher is saying. Oh sure, there’s play involved. But the playing is relentlessly didactic, because the adults involved worry about educational achievements above just about everything else.

I’m all for educational achievements. But they don’t come from programs designed to measure and track children on flowcharts designed by a committee of educationators. Real learning happens when children themselves want to learn, in settings where their natural curiosity hasn’t been dulled by overly didactic programs.

In plain English: If you stick your toddlers and young children in a classroom and make them drill (with a song! and a dance! or a screen!) until they can regurgitate something measurable, you will kill their natural curiosity and make them think that everything you want them to do is a chore.

I have three daughters whom I’ve been homeschooling since birth. They are now 10, “almost 9” and 7. If they went to school they’d be entering grades 6, 4 and 2. But if you heard them speak or read out loud, you’d think the eldest was half-way through high school already. Both parents are writers, and we both put a lot of emphasis on reading, writing, and oral expression. This is not to boast (well, OK, but not much), but to illustrate my point.

My kids don’t have to sit around learning things for much longer than 60 or 90 minutes a day, which we tend to break up in chunks of 20-30 minutes, in between which they are allowed to stretch or play or read. They don’t have goals to meet, as far as their educational achievement goes. I do, but they don’t know what the goals are. They just keep learning stuff until I send them off. They’ve never had to take a formal test in their lives, and I believe it’s one of the main reasons why they are still excited to learn things, especially if it involves story-telling. (Math and piano practice, not so much.)

When they are not made to sit down and listen (i.e. the bulk of their average day), they are left to play by themselves. We don’t tell them what to do, we let them figure out their own games. They also read a lot. For fun, I mean. They have books we assign to them (we loosely follow a classical education curriculum and their assigned reading books tend to be classics of literature), but they are free to pick anything they like for their free reading. They have library cards and they use them like little fiends.

Our local library branch has one of those summer reading clubs where the kids earn stickers and small toys every time they finish a book – and then they get entered into a draw for a free book. I never pressured my kids to join it, but they’re all enrolled. And they love nothing better than to rush there to tell Kelly, the friendly and incredibly patient custodian of the kids’ section, about the books they’ve read.

They don’t do it to get the toys and stickers, although they enjoy those. Nobody would read three novels just to get stickers. If baseball tickets and Disney passes aren’t enough to entice non-reading kids to get lost in a book for fun, stickers certainly won’t do it. But my kids really do enjoy the reading, precisely because to them it’s not a chore.

One important point: with very rare exceptions we do not insist that they finish a book that doesn’t interest them. Instead we ask them to explain why they don’t like it. The explanation does not have to convince us but it must be coherent and grammatically correct. Some books are terribly dull, and often it’s a matter of taste whether we like a style or not. Sometimes a person isn’t ready for a particular title, for no obvious reason, and they’ll like it a lot a year later. Heck, it took me three tries and a dozen years finally to enjoy Les Misérables, who am I to push Little Women on kids who aren’t, at the moment, digging it?

Fortunately, for parents of children who are not so keen on reading, there is a remedy, and it involves getting your kids immersed in stories. Here’s how you do it: If they are young (it helps a lot to start this when they’re babies), read stories out loud to them. Not just bedtime stories either. Real stories that involve character development, heroes slaying beasts and people succeeding despite long odds. When our kids were little we read all the Dr. Seuss books to them, over and over again. We eventually graduated to the Narnia Chronicles, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Swallows and Amazons, that sort of thing. It didn’t matter that the kids were too little to understand the story. The point was for them to get used to hearing stories. To fill their little heads with sounds, poetry, rhythm, and images. We didn’t shy away from stories that featured bad people and tragedies. Real life is full of those and little ones need to know this, provided the stories make moral sense and preferably end well, because nightmares are no fun.

Nowadays we still read out loud to them. We also let them listen to audiobooks until their ears fall off. They now insist on doing some of the reading we do themselves, which is something we encourage because it lets them practice speaking properly and also because it gives us a chance to spot problematic words and correct their pronunciation where needed. We let them watch movies (not educational TV programs; those are banned around here), and every now and then we’ll pick up a screenplay and act it out together. Macbeth is a favorite; you should see the delight they take in impersonating those witches.

The result of all this is that my kids love being immersed in stories. When they play freely they often re-enact movies they’ve watched, and they have their own parallel Harry Potter universe. Their imaginations are engaged and they eagerly seek out new stories.

It’s never too late to engage your children in good storytelling. But you have to do it with them. Kids have a very annoying habit of ignoring what we say and paying attention to what we do. If they never see us excited about a story, they’ll just think we’re trying to get rid of them when we send them to read. Watch movies together and discuss them – play with alternate endings, ask them how they’d want certain characters to behave instead, and see where their imagination takes them. Don’t expect too much at first. Treat imagination like a muscle; if your kids have already spent a few years in a school system that privileges measurable achievements over free play, they’ll need some practice. But the payoff is amazingly worthwhile.

Plus you’ll save loads of money on Disney passes. 

Free your children from the pointless drudgery of summer camps

My idea of summer camp: wilderness, lots of free time, and not too many screens

My idea of summer camp: wilderness, lots of free time, and not too many screens

People who know me well will not be surprised to read this piece of mine Mercatornet just published. But I hope they'll still enjoy it! 

It only stung the first dozen times or so. “Mom,” they said, “you’re weird. You don’t let us do the same things our friends are doing.” Indeed I don’t… and when I do, I often regret it.
For instance a few years ago when the eldest of my homeschooled daughters complained that I wasn’t enrolling them in summer camps like all the “normal” moms did. At the time the kids were five, three and one. I had full-time job working in morning television. My husband worked at the same TV station afternoons and evenings, which meant the girls were home with at least one parent.
“You don’t need to go to summer camp,” I explained. “Summer camps are for kids whose parents work regular hours and need a place to park their offspring when there’s no school to send them to.”
Eventually I relented and signed up the older two for a week-long half-day ballet camp. And what a colossal waste of time that was. (And money.) Each day they came home rattled and exhausted by the organized group games and relentless pace of same; apparently it’s a Rule of the Universe that day campers have to be kept hyper busy at all times. But the worst for them was that they didn’t learn any ballet at all.
It wasn’t because the school was lousy. But summer camps force everyone to level things down, because they’re only good for business if the number of campers is high enough to make it worth their while. With a high camper-to-teacher ratio, the only activities that make sense are group ones in which each individual kid learns very little.
I’m not blaming the dance school; businesses do what makes sense to them. But I do think parents ought to make different choices, and not just because it’s silly to spend $400 a week to have your darlings play buddy ball.
I have nothing against summer camps where kids go to a cabin somewhere wild pretending to like carbonized marshmallows and pooping in a hole. Those camps are awesome, and so are specialized camps for very serious and already committed kids who want to hone their artistic or athletic skills with highly respected champions and low student-teacher ratios – assuming you can afford it. What I don’t like are the generic, “no experience necessary” day camps run by easily overwhelmed teenagers. You know, daycare pretending it’s soccer.
I know parents have the best of intentions. They want their children to be exposed to a variety of activities and interests, because they believe it increases their chances of getting into the right colleges and finding employment that’s both fulfilling and lucrative. Wouldn’t want the kids to “waste” their time in the summer now, would we? Yes but.
Just last week the New York Times reported on a story about Asian-Americans suing Harvard for rejecting them despite all their achievements in favour of what they claim are less deserving students from other minority groups. The Times interviewed Michael Wang, among others, who couldn’t get into most Ivy League colleges even with a plus-que-parfait resume combining crazy high academic scores with all the right kinds of extracurricular activities, including years of piano and being in a choir that sang at President Obama’s inauguration. (You can hear him tell his story in the audio section of this article.)
I wouldn’t call his a misspent childhood. Children do need to be exposed to a wide variety of activities and interests. But trying to maximize every minute of their lives in highly structured situations where they are prevented from failing and learning tough lessons, and never have free time in which to exercise their imaginations and learn self-direction to avoid boredom, is not the answer. Summer camp kids do get exposed to golf, soccer, karate, or drawing, but their exposure is at best skin-deep and the pace is too frantic. It’s a lot of not much for the money.
To become the best version of themselves they can be, and be successful according to their own parameters, children need freedom to play, discover and imagine. They also require a healthy dose of empathy on top of a solid academic foundation. Children need freedom from the drudgery of highly structured activities. They need long unorganized hours to run around, play outside in the dirt, get their knees scraped, catch bugs, and learn real cooperation, problem-solving skills and responsibility.
Better summer activities for them would be to help those in need. Every town and neighbourhood has a list of service projects in need of volunteers; everything from cleaning up public parks to spending time with the elderly or running errands for the bed-ridden.
Giving children a summer of freedom punctuated by genuinely helpful projects would require most parents to rethink their own schedule. Maybe they need to take more time off, maybe they can get together with a few other parents and arrange for each one to take the others’ kids for two weeks. Obviously this kind of overhaul takes time and effort – and possibly a few sacrifices as well. But the payoff is real and not just for the kids. And so are the savings.
After that one experience with the ballet school I swore off summer camps in favour of plain old free time and volunteering. When my kids want to explore something new, we find sources of information (books from the library, online tutorials, videos), get supplies, and get cracking. Not only are they learning at least as much about their new interests as other kids do in summer camps, but they’re also learning to teach themselves new skills instead of relying on someone else to spoon-feed them knowledge, which is bound to come in handy later in life.
I am pleased by the results so far, and now when they call me weird I smile.

Why the Finnish model of education works

Learning important skills while having fun

Learning important skills while having fun

Articles like this one make my heart sing but also make my head shake a wee bit. Because in my mind the number one reason Finnish kids do better than North American ones in education isn't because of teachers' unions or socio-economic status or any other systemic or institutional reason. Well, OK. Maybe a bit. I'm sure giving teachers enough autonomy to teach as they see fit contributes to better classrooms. But that's not where it's at.

I am not an expert in educational systems. But my experience homeschooling three kids for almost a decade now has taught me one giant lesson: children do not react well to a system that treats them like mini-bureaucrats. They don't do well in systems where they're in an unnatural setting (are there buildings less like the natural world than schools, I ask you? They look like insecticide factories), forced to comply with a regimented schedule, where they are constantly supervised and tested, and where they have very little time to play without constraints.

My kids are 10, 8 and "almost 7". I've done most of the homeschooling for the last few years. It's been a mix of classical curriculum (with a huge emphasis on stories, fables and fairy tales) and unschooling (where I basically give them freedom to decide what they want to look up and study - I have one kid who became an expert in animals that way, watching one nature documentary after another in her free time).

Recently we've overhauled our system a bit, because I was having trouble teaching the more advanced math my eldest requires (she'd normally be in grade 5 if she went to school, but she's a solid year ahead of that). The kids now spend three mornings a week (about 90 minutes) working on math/science, piano and French with their dad, and I take the other two mornings to do world history, literature, arts, grammar and whatever else strikes our fancy (including lots of crafts and drawing). My kids also get to sleep - usually 9 or 10 hours a night. This makes a huge difference in their life and health, which in turn helps them learn their lessons better.

We spend on average no more than 90 minutes a day teaching the kids. We don't take summer breaks, mind you, so it works out to a decent average compared to how many hours school kids spend actively learning anything in their institutionalized setting. We have never done any homework. We also don't give out tests. Just exercises to master. But you know what we do give the kids? Time to play. Not play dates, just free time. They're big enough to go to the park by themselves now, as long as they're together (it's a short walk, and the eldest has a phone of her own for emergencies and keeping in touch with me), and sure enough they enjoy that freedom to play unsupervised. They understand that freedom comes at a price - they must be responsible and well-behaved, and look out for each other. This does wonderful things for their character and developing maturity.

I will never insist enough on that - it is crucial for the development of children that they be given lots of time to play unsupervised. Not that you shouldn't watch young children for their safety. By "unsupervised" I mean: you the parent do not direct their play. You don't organize their games. You don't interfere in their minor squabbles unless it gets out of hand. You let them be. I don't even take part in their games anymore. I listen to hem tell me all about it, of course, but I don't get involved. I don't want to tell them how to imagine things. That's something they must do for themselves.

The results? So far, so excellent. I look at the provincial curriculum for reference, and based on that my three kids are all well ahead of where they would be in school, especially in reading and writing, where they all perform years ahead of their grades (maybe because both parents are writers, cough). My eldest trains with the karate team and has lots of time to develop her skills there (as well as travel to tournaments). My middle daughter devours every book and documentary on animals she can lay her hands on. As for the smaller one, she's had years now to develop her talent as an artist - she draws, paints, does things with paper and scissors, and all manner of creative things.

I don't like the idea of testing children, but I would be very curious to see how my homeschooled weirdos would fare compared to Finnish kids their age. My gut (based on everything I've read and heard about the Finnish system) tells me they'd be pretty much equivalent. I wish there were options for North American kids to get what my kids get without necessarily having the parents do all the schooling. Homeschooling isn't for everyone, and I'm here to tell you it's not easy. If I had the option to send them to a school that does more or less what I've been doing, I would, because then I'd have more time for my own pursuits. 

It's not so much the school system we need to overhaul in North America. It's our expectations of what schools should do that needs fixing. We need to understand that kids don't need tight schedules and performance tests, that they need a lot more freedom and play instead.