Monday, December 23, 2013

"Chromosomes" bumper sticker

I am driving a lot, so I see a lot of bumper stickers. This one caught my eye today:
Chromosomes Bumper Sticker

Say what?! Yes, I got it, your kid has Down's syndrome. Yes, you want to raise awareness. But since when do extra chromosomes come with bragging rights?

Maybe I am way off mark here. Maybe this is supposed to send our overachieving and under-educated parents into a panic: what are those chromosomes, and how can I get extra for my child? Obviously, if your child has more, then I should push to get some, too. What my gut feels here is an exploitation, a hijacking of a difficult situation to serve parental need for attention grabbing. 

My very quick online browse showed that there are other bumper stickers out there, with a gentler message of love and acceptance and pride. 

Extra chromosome? Just more to love!
Friends don't count chromosomes.
Love doesn't count chromosomes.
I love someone who has Down syndrome.

But this? This is showing off.  As 9 yo astutely observed, isn't this embarrassing to the kid? I wonder whether the parent thought to ask the child before slapping one of these on the car how he feels about being an advertisement.

Full disclaimer: I have nothing against Down's syndrome. I will not even pretend to know what it's like to raise a child with T21. I do not believe that atypical people should be hidden away or swept under the rug. I am just wondering: what is this sticker trying to accomplish?

managing anxiety

Ever since 7 yo was diagnosed with anxiety, I checked out a big stack of books out of the library on anxiety in children. That was about two weeks ago, maybe more. The stack is making me anxious. To balance out the stack, I checked out two tangential books: Saving Normal about how we overdiagnose mental disturbances, and A Nation of Wimps, a book about how we presume our kids to be overly fragile and in constant need of coddling. I have been slowly slogging through these two books first. 

I have been agreeing with some statements, like the fact that kids' lives are overmanaged, kids are deprived of free play, adults project their anxieties onto kids, etc. I disagree with some others, especially the attack on homeschooling as the ultimate helicopter parenting. But the book had made me think quite a bit.

I am gathering information before deciding what to do. I really would like to fall into more unschool-y groove with 7 yo, lay off a bit. Yet, I keep brushing time and again against his difficulties. He did an hour of code, and loved the coding programs as long as he could select commands from the menu and did not have to type anything in. Once the course progressed, and typing became necessary, he told me that he will not be doing it, since it's too hard. This morning, my daughter was decorating a homemade birthday card for a friend. She drew her friend on the front, and it looked like a person: eyes, nose, mouth, body, hands, feet, ears, hair. She even told me how she is drawing longer hair on the sides of her friend's face, not just a short stubble on top of her head. 7 yo never drew a person like that, neither out of his free will, nor on command. His people barely look like humans. I have not taught my daughter how to draw a person; that is something she picked up somewhere on her own, in a true child-directed learning fashion. He did not. What does he see instead of what we all see, and what is stopping his people from looking like all other stick people? He is stuck by his lack of skills, but instead of plunging in and mastering them on a needed basis, he is shrinking back. 

I have two paths to choose: either keep on working on areas of his difficulty ( perception, writing, spelling) or not push him in those areas at all, and trust that he will be able to find means to compensate. Working on his weak areas probably will entail specialists, and all attendant costs and anxieties. On the other hand, we do not just let diabetics or asthmatics drop dead because of their faulty pancreas or bronchi. We diagnose them and give them medication and check regularly to see that it is working. 

Now, on to anxiety. I am an anxious person myself. There, I've said it. I was parented by a Jewish mother, with attendant pressures to succeed based on her definition of success, and then never being good enough. I have seen this quote somewhere, that all parenting is either a repeat of the way you were brought up, or a rebellion against it. I have been working very hard to move past that. But I am not surprised that 7 yo is anxious. In fact, genetics are so powerful that it would be weird if none of my kids would have inherited parental personality traits, including less-than-stellar ones. So there, I am (most likely) the cause of my son's anxiety, both genetic and situational. However, before I jump onto mediation/relaxation/no sugar regimen for HIM, I might do better to apply these to ME. If I am more calm, I can respond more calmly to him. If I know how to control my anxiety, I can model it for him. Obvious, I know, yet this is much harder to do than just read about another hysterical scare of what's derailing our kids and apply new snake oil to the child, to assuage parental guilt.

Practically, I am planning on seeking external help in the role of a homeschool assistant. I am hoping to go back to doing yoga. I will make time to daven and talk to Hashem in a meaningful way. And I am planning to try out all those anxiety-reducing techniques on myself before expecting my child to become "Less anxious! Right now!"

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Great Friday night

It hasn't happened in such a long time, that I almost forgot how fun we can all be. Between the day-to-day stresses of running a household, between my husband working, between the diagnosis of 7 yo and possibility of school for 9 yo, between the baby still not quite sleeping through the night, it is so easy to be constantly in a crisis managing mode, and oh-so-serious.

What we all needed was a break, and we somehow pulled it off this Friday night. We had no company, not even my in-laws. I made a very simple meal: curry cauliflower soup from "Manna from Heaven" that my kids adore, salmon, potatoes and salad. For dessert we had a banana cream pie from Walmart sale rack (9 yo said it tasted like fluoride treatment at the dentist, but it sure looked good!) On Friday morning the kids listened to Rabbi Juravel on the parsha from I am not so comfortable with the amount of misrashim that he puts into story, but he gets kids engaged and they do know what is there, and are eager to discuss it, so for now, that is our parsha learning.

My husband got home early enough before shabbos to clean the house a bit. I am not talking spic and span, more so one can walk without stepping on Cheerios. The local minyan around the corner was not happening this week, so he stayed home for mincha and maariv. We even sang a bit of Lecha Dodi. My boys do not want to go to shul with him, so for them, it was not so different from a regular Friday night.

Once we made kiddush and hamotzi, and the meal got on its way, we started talking about the parsha. We give out jelly beans for answering a good question, and they are age-appropriate for each kid. 3 yo was not engaging, even though she heard quite a bit of the parsha, so I decided to do a bit of acting with her. I told her that she will be Miriam, and her doll will be Moshe. She loved having a mission to put her baby brother into a basket and watch him go down the river. My husband was playing the role of Egyptian princess, and 7 yo was his maidservant. A pool noodle (I had it under the couch to prevent the toys form rolling there, but it was appropriated as a weapon) was used as a long arm to reach the baby. My husband was pretty funny, claiming that he has no idea what to do with this baby, dangling the doll by one leg upside down. The kids were giggling. I sent 3 yo over, to offer to bring the baby's mother to nurse this baby. By this point, her real baby brother was trying to climb into the basket, and she was pushing him out, making space for doll Moshe.

Then the boys asked to act out Moshe and the burning bush. They assigned roles: 9 yo--Hashem's voice, 7 yo--lost sheep, 3 yo--snake, my husband as Moshe and I was the burning bush. The baby was just free crawling through this all. I got to wave the bright orange pillows, 3 yo kept jumping up and hissing, and sheep was bleating, and Hashem and Moshe has a very interesting conversation. The baby took off with Moshe's discarded shoes. The above-mentioned pool noodle became a staff, but then it morphed into a phone line. We all dissolved into laughter.

While I tucked in the baby, my husband read a good night story to the older kids. The whole night was just so nice and light-hearted, and fun.

As a baalat teshuva, I did not grow up with Shabbos. I did not go away to camp, and I did not go to Israel, so I do not have that amazing uplifting spiritual treasure trove of Shabbos experiences to tap into.  Every now and then I get a glimpse of this alternate spiritual state that is Shabbos. I fret about it, I wish I knew how to maintain it and bring it to my family regularly. We keep Shabbos, we refrain from melacha and make kiddush. We daven, we go to shul and discuss parsha. And yet, often, that Shabbos feeling is not there. My husband might get called up, the kids sulk, I sulk, too much pressure to entertain and have company and go out, and socialize. I know it can be simple, but in the day-to-day living, it is so easy to lose track of how simple it can be.

I decided not to have people over any Shabbos that my husband might be called up. I also think that we need to establish one Shabbos a month when it is just us, and I can make a very simple meal, so that the emphasis will be on having a good time together.

Monday, December 16, 2013

the grass is always greener on the other side

Before I pulled 9 yo out of school two years ago, I spent quite a bit of time agonizing over the decision: he was doing fine academically, OK socially, and he was not hating school. He was not loving it, and he did not have close friends who would sway him to stay, but I still had a hard time justifying WHY am I removing him from school. I finally took a deep breath, and just did it, hoping that this is for the best.

Now I am finding myself on the other side of the fence, agonizing whether he would be better off in school.

Reasons to send him:
  • Schedule/structure: he likes to know what is going on, and how much time he is assigned per activity. I do not like it, and I keep getting distracted with other kids, so I am better off if our learning unfolds and takes as much time as necessary or available. Whenever I try to stick to a more structured day, I find myself in the role of a taskmaster, cajoling and yelling to move on to the next item on the agenda.
  • Academics: while I have no doubt that he is learning a lot, and much more diversely than he would be learning in a classroom, I find myself thinking of projects that would be good to do with him, but I do not put enough time to implement them. He reads a lot of history, so a timeline would be so helpful. Why not write an essay about our family? Or make a presentation on chumash? All those would be so good, and so appropriate, but they would require a tremendous amount of effort and time from me, and I do not put it there. Why not? Because I have a crawling baby who is chewing on everything, and a 3 yo who keeps on wanting to be held, and 7 yo who needs one-on-one more than I can give. So 9 yo is left more to his own devices, and those tend to skew heavily towards reading and doing independent work.
  • Social: in most environments, he ends up being the oldest of the group. That, combined with his natural desire to dominate, is not producing a pretty picture. He is not bullying, but he is forceful. Whenever he encounters older boys, he ends up in conflict. I almost wonder whether he would do better in a peer environment instead of having a group of followers.
Reasons not to send him:
  • This morning, before breakfast was over, he wondered about the molecular weight of tomato sauce. Then he asked what would happen if we could tell what will happen in the future. Both of these led to the kinds of open discussions which I love having in my house. Most likely, he would not have time or opportunities to ask these sorts of questions in school.
  • Academics: the coop that we are part of is offering classes which he would not have in school: architecture, history, war weapons. Online, I can pursue more programming classes. He spends time online researching things that are of interest to him. The field trips and opportunities for hands-on learning would be lost to long hours of sitting behind a desk. The independent and critical thinking skills would take a backseat to following the groupthink.
  • Freedom: despite me wishing that he would use his time more constructively, he has more free time now than he would have in school. A friend recommended this article from the recent NYT which just underscores how little we value free time in our quest for busyness. It is hard to justify taking this away from him in return for a few good-looking worksheets and assurance that he is outputting something.
  • Carpool/lunch/schedule: I hated having the whole day tied to the time I had to drop him off and pick him up. I hated packing lunch every day. I hated being on school calendar and trying to squeeze all family outings into Sundays. I did not like that he missed on all the day trips I did with the other two kids. If he goes back to school, there are bound to be hurt feelings about family experiences that he'll be missing.
  • Tuition.
  • Finally, since having one less kid at home would ease up my load, he would feel as a burden pushed out to make space and time for others. The potential for emotional resentment is great, especially when the feeling that he was the "easy one", so he got sacrificed for the more difficult siblings vying for paternal attention.
And yet, I wonder what to do. I am stretched too thin. Something needs to change. I do not like the general direction where my relationship with 9 yo is heading: squabbles, accusations and fights, suspicion, unhappiness. And then I know that I need to take a good look in the mirror at myself. This video just underscores that the traits that we do not like seeing in our children are the traits we possess ourselves.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

first coding lesson

Since 9 yo is so obsessed with computer games, I was planning to look into getting him into a computer class of some kind. I just was not sure whether he would be interested, and I did not want to have another obligation which involved driving.

And then one of the homeschooling parents posted a link to Khan academy where this week everyone is encouraged to spend one hour learning how to write computer code. Khan academy has been on my list of learning resources to check out, so this was a perfect opportunity to try it out and to see whether 9 yo is interested.

Here is the link that we followed:

I decided that each boy should have his own time to code, so the first tutorial was watched together, and then I sent 7 yo to play on his DS while 9 yo did the first exercise. I was quite impressed with the way material was presented. There was plenty of time for him to check out different features, and then the exercises encouraged him to get certain parts to fit certain parameters. He was able to design a card at the end. We got rid of the holiday format and he made a birthday card for his aunt. 9 yo persistently worked with the program, and did not seem to rush through it. He enjoyed it, and I am planning to look into more tutorials for him.

With 7 yo , it was not so smooth. He loved watching the videos and I think he understood everything, but the actual programming was a bit more of a challenge. His typing is nonexistent, so it took him a long time to find all the right letters. In the good news, he typed more today than he ever typed in his life. The precise nature of programming and the constant distraction of being notified of mistakes was not so good for him. By the time he came to the last exercise of making his own card, he got sloppy and his tolerance for error went way down. He melted down before completing the card, but he was able to do all the other steps in the tutorial.

If you are looking to expose your kids to programming, or are interested in trying it yourself, this is a great opportunity.


My father was a programmer. He was very much after me and my sister to write programs in BASIC. But back in the eighties, we did not have access to a computer. Moreover, the programs were not this colorful and creative bonanza. It was hard to imagine what the final result would look like. I was a disappointment, not so interested in all this programming.

Lo and behold. when I hit graduate school, all of a sudden I was expected to pick up UNIX on a fly since all molecular modeling was done in UNIX. There was no time to fool around and see how it works. I found myself feverishly writing down commands in a notebook  hoping to use them in a correct sequence next time I will expected to work on a model. That was  not a forgiving environment, and I do not remember much of those commands.  WHOAMI.

I look at my boys and think: what will happen after today? Will they continue to be interested in tinkering with computer beyond the level of a user, a term my father threw around derisively? Will this be just one day of dabbling and then they will sink right back into their games, not thinking that somebody wrote all of code behind them? Will their path take them to the world where it will be impossible to make it without knowing how to program? How do I know whether to push and encourage them in this area, or wait and see whether it just naturally picks up?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

playing with fire

As we were making havdalah, 7 yo used a lighter to light up the candle. I was watching him and a question from his evaluation popped into my head: did he ever try to set anything on fire? The answer: no, never. I understand the need for this kind of question, as it is an issue of figuring out whether an individual had destructive tendencies, but another part of it struck a different chord: this kid gets to play with fire on a regular basis, in a controlled environment, so even if he has those destructive tendencies, he has a good opportunity to channel them in a positive manner.

A year ago we attended this safety house workshop, where the kids are taught all about what to do in case of a fire, including a smoke simulation and crawling out a window. There, the point hammered time and again was how evil the candles were and how dangerous it is to have one in your house. Moms exchanged knowing glances and talked about the flameless candles. I sat there, quietly stunned. I light candles every Friday night, for Shabbos. The kids watch me light those candles. 3 yo occasionally joins me in lighting her candle. Of course, I keep the candlesticks high up, out of kids' reach. Of course, I do not allow horsing around near open flames. But to say that all candles are so bad and so dangerous? Perhaps we are taking it a bit too far.

When I taught middle school science, one of the experiments required the students to light up a match. I do not even remember why, but it did. Well, I had four sixth-grade boys. Out of four, one (ONE!) was able to light a match successfully. The others demurred, or their hands were shaky, or they did not know what they were doing. Sissies! We are raising up a generation of sissies. No wonder the second these adolescents finally figure out how to light up, they set everything on fire.

7 yo ( and 9 yo) have been interested in fire and matches and candles for a long time. My husband allows them to light up and extinguish a havdalah candle under his supervision. They are not very proficient with matches, but they are good with a long handled lighter. We just finished celebrating Chanukah. On every night, the kids lit up their own menorahs. There is open fire, there is a skill of holding a burning candle so that you can light up the others, there is dripping hot wax, there is quite a bit of a mess. But there is also the beauty of flickering flames, and the pride of lighting up your own menorah. There is singing with the family while watching those candles.

Why would anyone want to set fire after that?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

this is unschooling

These are sweet potato latkes I made for the last day of Chanukah.

This is the face 7 yo made about them: "I don't like latkes! I tried them a million times, and I do not like them!"

9 yo pragmatically responded: "You did not live long enough to have a million meals."

This is the math that 9 yo did to show how many meals 7 yo ate in his lifetime. I helped him set up the equation, but he worked out the rest on his own.

This is my baby who thoroughly enjoyed the above-mentioned latkes.

This is why I keep on coming back to child-led learning as the best way to learn. This is why I doubt that there is a school program out there that would be perfect for 9 yo.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

reading and unschooling

While I am not a fan of using a test as a tool to assess anyone's abilities, now that 7 yo has been "tested", I would like to share one little insight.

He scored really high in reading.

His word reading is on 5th grade level. His verbal comprehension (finding similar words and defining provided words) are at 95th and 98th percentile. Before anyone thinks that I am boasting, I am providing these numbers to make one very important point: this kid NEVER did a comprehension exercise in his life, neither he did a vocabulary exercise. He was not drilled, and he did not practice.

He was not an early reader. He did not admit to recognizing the first letter of his name till he was almost five. He did not learn letters early, or show interest in reading. The only reading practice that I formally did with him was BOB books, and some beginning readers from the library.

What can his high scores be attributed to?

I do not think "oh, he's a genius". I think it is a combination of our home environment with a certain ethic. I used to read bedtime stories to kids every night. When we moved, one of the first places I searched out was the local library, and then we used it, heavily. I picked out the books for kids, they picked out their own books, we attended story time. I took out a ton of books for myself. I spend all my free time reading. The message has been loud and clear: read, read, read! When new books are lying around, tantalizingly close, just waiting to be opened and examined, who can resist.

When 7 yo was in preschool. the complaint that we got was that he always is next to the book shelf, asking someone to read to him. I got my kids books as yom tov gifts. In this environment of very dense literacy, reading is not optional, it is as essential as breathing.

This brings me to an ethic of unshooling: I do not enforce or monitor my kids' reading. We do not have a set time to read. We do not use workbooks or textbooks. I do not check their comprehension, unless they are eager to share what they read. 7 yo occasionally will come and ask me what a particular word means, and I will supply the answer. My kids read everything: chapter books, picture books, comics, atlases, magazines. cereal boxes... Oh, I know I should be choosier, then the first chapter book that 7 yo read would not have been "Captain Underpants". And yet, despite this not all-wholesome literary diet, he is a fluent reader, with great comprehension and vocabulary. He enjoys reading, and he does not view it as a chore or schoolwork.

One final detail: we also listen to books on tape, or, more accurately, on CDs. I get them out of the library, so we have a variety, and they do not cost us a thing. Some of the vocabulary and comprehension could be coming in that way, just listening. I save CDs for car rides, when we are all stuck in a car anyway. I love to load up on them before a big road trip, but even driving around town provides plenty of opportunities to listen.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

results of the evalution

Well, we've gotten the diagnosis. I have been mulling in my mind what to do with it, now that we have a piece of paper. In the good news, 7 yo is not depressed, does not have Asperger's ( I could have told that to anyone!) and has mild ADHD, mostly with hyperactive component. I was told that he would not need medication (more relief) and that kids tend to outgrow hyperactivity.

Now, to the parts that are not so clear-cut. He has anxiety. He also has a writing disorder, but since he scored so high in other categories (reading, reasoning, oral, vocabulary, comprehension), and basically did not perform the written test, it is not clear whether he has a true writing disorder, or his anxiety is taking over, so if his anxiety is quieted, he might be able to write. I was told to work on his anxiety, and then reevaluate his writing in a year, to see whether a disorder can be ruled out.

I have been provided with a list of recommendations. I looked over it and sighed. Set-in-stone alone time with each parent? I wish; what am I supposed to do with the rest of my kids, it is not like anyone is lining up to babysit them. I would love for my husband to take him out regularly to do stuff: get a hot chocolate, wrestle, learn, walk. But the life of OB-GYN and regularity do not mix.

Provide a quiet, uncluttered environment for his schoolwork: oh yes, the proverbial clean desk. He shares his room with two siblings right now, the kitchen table and dining room table are used by mutliple parties and for multiple purposes throughout the day, and he likes to work on the floor anyway. What about the rest of the kids? Maybe I should just get him ear plugs.

Another suggestion was to do breathing exercises, or develop mental techniques to calm his mind. I have taken yoga, so I tried to sit him down, teach him some slow breaths, close his eyes, relax. Except that last time I tried it, both 3 yo and the baby were trying to get into my lap, squealing. Not a relaxing atmosphere.

Focus on carrying out multi-step activities: Legos, puzzles. This kid was never interested in either. I asked him whether he wants to play with Legos alone, without his older meddling brother. He said, only if there are instructions, basically, if there is a new set. Over the past two years, the boys bought three different sets like that from Costco, but all the pieces were mixed up with the other Legos we own. That's how 9 yo plays: he is always inventing, tweaking, modifying. 7 yo is always watching. I went digging for some Legos and found a Lego knock-off that somebody gave us. Perfect: a complete set, with instructions. I felt insane telling 9 yo that he absolutely cannot tell his brother what to do, or how to build, that is part of his schoolwork. 9 yo sulked, and wished that he had play as part of his school. Well, 7 yo took a day, and just a tiniest bit of help, and build everything in the set. I asked him later, whether he enjoys playing with it. He said, no, I am done building it. Obviously, he just wanted to be guaranteed a finished product, and now that it's here, he's not interested any more. Sigh, I am pretty sure that's not what the psychologist had in mind. I am much more there with 9 yo and Miss Frizzle: take chances! Make mistakes! Build whatever you desire! (Just clean up at the end, please).

Back to the evaluation: I asked the psychologist outright if 7 yo would be better off in a school setting. He said that right now he would need to have anxiety taken care of before going into a new situation, Also, his writing would be an issue, but he kept talking about how high he scored in reading and general intelligence, so he is pretty sure that writing will be OK, long-term.

One of the suggestions that I really did not like was the whole positive reinforcement thing: give him a sticker chart, a reward jar, constantly dangle a carrot, give him M&Ms, praise and praise, make him feel that he's winning, and, somehow, he will perform. Arf, arf, good boy. I am just starting reading "Punished by Rewards" by Alfie Kohn, and this whole behaviorism thing is really grating me the wrong way. My oldest will jump through hoops for rewards. 7 yo is a different story. This is a kid who kept forgetting to get his davening treat (before his brother came home and reminded him all the time). This is a child who stubbornly refused to do a page to math, spent 5 hours hiding out in his room, and was willing to skip a much-anticipated playdate, all to avoid doing something that he deemed too hard. He does not CARE that much for rewards, especially of the little silly kind. He is not competitive, in fact, he shies away from any competition. I strongly doubt that this form of positive reinforcement is what is missing from his life. I do encourage him, and I do descriptive praise ( the dishes are all stacked up nicely; those words are spaced just right, it is so easy to read this line, etc.), but I hate the whole fake "Good job!" and excited applause thing.

In good news: we should continue with taekwondo, and provide physical outlets for his energy.

So what to do, what to do?

I feel stretched very thin, as it is. Worse, I am starting to get into the mindset that if my kids were in school they would be better off: less yelling, more learning, more structure, more discipline... I have four kids, each with their unique needs. One size does not fit all, but I am having hard time providing for each one what he/she needs. So, do I send the oldest back to school, to free up some time and attention for 7 yo? Do I look for a school program for 7 yo, hoping that they will give him right environment? Do I hire a tutor to work on his writing, one-on-one. hoping that they coax out his true writing abilities? Do I get a babysitter daily and use that time to focus just on 7 yo? Do I get him to a local psychologist to work on his anxiety? Do I go back to unschooling, and hope that once he relaxes enough and gets interested enough, writing will flow?

It is not easy. We are taking Chanukah off, and I am taking my time to think this over.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

recognizing and appreciating my mentors

Homeschooling is a rough journey: there are no familiar signposts, and so much of the time is spent either reinventing the wheel or blazing a trail, that it gets exhausting. I found that over the years it helped to have others, further on in their homeschooling journey, to talk to. These people as a rule have been doing it way longer than me, and have older kids, so they have been reassuring: I've been there, I know how frustrating it can get, and this stage will pass.

I have to acknowledge these amazing women, and all the hours they put in, listening to me, giving advice, and just being there.

J lives in New York and has five kids, all of them homeschooled. Her oldest is in college. For four years, when my oldest was just born, I homeschooled someone else's daughter, and we did recess together: J's kids, this girl, and my boy(s). I was following textbooks back then, mostly recommended by this girl's parents, and it is easier to get someone else's kid to mind you (no tantrums), so the conversations with J used to be more technical back then: how to memorize multiplication tables, what about writing, etc. A lot of time had passed since those days: I've moved twice to different cities, J embraced unschooling more fully, and I've got more sage advice from her. Now that I'm home with my own kids, more in charge of picking and choosing what we are doing, I have more existential issues: am I messing them up? What will happen if they will spend a whole week on DS? How much discipline is necessary? Time and again, I call or e-mail J, and every time I walk away feeling heard and reassured.

C was also part of our "recess" crowd in NY. My 9 yo and her daughter were born three weeks apart, and we lived in the same house back then: we had downstairs while C lived upstairs. C has five kids, and her oldest is highschool-age. Luckily for me, C right now lives in the same city that I live in. Unfortunately, between her babies' naps and my babies' naps, her schedule and my schedule, we do not get to see each other as often as we should. However, over the years, she has been there for me. Since our kids are very similar in age, it has been good to discuss whether a particular challenge that I'm having is something that she is experiencing too. C is also quick to point out how many of the issues that I am having now have to do with having a small baby thrown into the mix rather than inherent inability to get things done. Somehow I keep on forgetting how little people can suck up so much attention and energy. And, living in the same city, it is nice just to be able to get together, let the kids play, have a semi-adult conversation...

I stumbled upon S's blog when I was planning on pulling 9 yo out of school. S has four kids, and her oldest is post bar mitzvah. All of them have been homeschooled all along. When I was reading about her days, I walked away inspired. I got a sense of what homeschooling is really like rather than a glossy, picture- and project-heavy shell some bloggers throw out there. Those overly perfect blogs made me wonder whether I should be doing more, and left me feeling depressed. In contrast, S's life sounded so normal and doable. I've met S at homeschool conference in Baltimore and saw for myself how "real" she was. She has also hosted a few webinars. We've spoken a bit through Facebook, but what I really appreciated is when she got on the phone with me and really heard my more recent concerns about the boys. Since she has an older boy, I felt so reassured to hear that some of the behaviors and attitudes which got me so worried are possibly just a stage. S is also very realistic, and kept me grounded when I was talking about nearly impossible expectations that trickle down from the yeshiva system to our sons.

These busy women were willing and able to share some of their wisdom and insight with me. If I did not know that I have someone to guide me, I would not have courage and perspective to homeschool. So wherever you are on your homeschooling journey, seek out a mentor or mentors. When the going gets tough, you will need that voice of someone who's been there.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

What's wrong with this picture?

This one is courtesy of my son ( 7 yo). It's in the back of S'fateinu, and since we were almost done with the book, we skipped ahead to Chanukah. He was looking at the pictures and exclaimed: look, this is crazy!

Can you see what got him riled up?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

a small miracle happened here

Tonight, an hour before it was time for kids to get into bed, I casually suggested that they do some Chanukah decoration. I have been casually suggesting it for the past week, especially if someone came up interested in a project, but it hadn't taken off. Tonight the moment was right, so the three olders busily got something going. 9 yo was making an ancient poster:

3 yo was coloring in some pages that I printed earlier during the week from

7 yo was set on making a shamash holder from one of his Chanukah books, but then he decided to look into making Chanukah treats: edible dreidels and menorah. I suggested that he write down the shopping list of what we need. I cannot tell how many times we have found ourselves in this situation: he comes up with a project with multiple items, I suggest making a list of what he needs, he balks, and that's the end of it. Tonight a small miracle took place. He said, OK, went to the fridge, tore off a shopping list form, and copied the ingredients that we are missing. I was barely containing my excitement, he finally had to write and just wrote, no freak-out, no meltdown, no avoidance. He even had to write down Hershey kisses, which he could not copy. He asked for help. I told him to write down "her" and he capitalized it, then he said, "sh" and then "e". I added "y". For "kisses" he wrote "kise', then said that it's not right, switched "e" for "s" and remembered "es". To top off tonight's feat, he also colored in the lines.

Not huge accomplishments for a 7 yo, I know, but these are good strides in the right direction.

I leave you with an image of Pikachu helping Maccabees out, courtesy of 9 yo.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

getting a psychological evaluation

There is this beautiful example of getting ready for Shabbos early going around: have your table set and all the preparations finished by chatzot (midday) of Friday. While I appreciate the idea, it never worked for me: when I was working, I did not get home till a few hours before Shabbos, and now, with kids at home, we are often still using the dining room table late into the afternoon. And this week, my newly-crawling baby reminded me why I used to set the table only after my husband got home from shul: he got hold of the edge of the tablecloth and started pulling. So while the concept of going into Shabbos in an unhurried manner appeals tremendously, honestly, it is not happening to us.

I used to feel the same way about labeling and diagnosing, especially boys. I was very inspired by Boys Adrift and the theory that boys are overmedicated today, and normal boy tendencies are squelched. I have been careful to avoid labels, especially for 7 yo. I knew that there is something going on, but with individualized instruction and lots of freedom to move and be, he would be better off at home than in any other scenario.

Lately, I had been not so sure. We are butting heads and butting heads. He keeps getting triggered into fits: one day it's one thing, next day it's something else. He is anxious and stubborn. 3 yo started to emulate his sulking behaviorand repeat some choice phrases. A few weeks ago, after a particularly trying day, when both boys acted up and did not listen, and 7 yo decided to pull on me "you are making me do things that 7 year olds are not supposed to do", I yelled back "Enough! I'm sending you to school! Then you will see what other kids your age are doing!" They quieted down, but the thought stuck with me.

I told my husband the same evening that I'm seriously considering sending both boys to school. They do not appreciate the amount of freedom they have now, it is too much for me, and let them experience for themselves what they should be doing. I also said that I'm not even sure that the local dayschool will so readily take 7 yo, with his outbursts and refusal to write, they will send him to public school, and the public school with require educational testing and psychological evaluation to get a label on his problem. My husband thoughtfully said: "If we will have to do it anyway, why can't we get him tested ourselves? Why are we avoiding this?"

Very good question.

I have resolved to get him tested and finally see what is the proper name to this craziness. (And yes, I am still considering sending either or both boys to school. Call me a traitor to the ideals of homeschooling, but it has not been feeling warm and fuzzy lately. If it's not working, I am not so stuck up to keep on plowing through becausse I have a reputation to uphold). However, from my previous asking around, I got that we are looking at thousands of dollars in expenses, coupled with potential long waits and probably just a label slapped on, not practical solutions. I figured, we probably will need an exemption from the standardized test that he would have to take next year, or at least, an accommodation, so a label will have at least a limited practical use. This time, I confided in a friend, who sent me to another mutual friend, saying that she knows people. That second friend gave me a name of this person, and that person, and warned me that a lot of them do not take insurance. I was listening to her while simultaneously feeding mush to my baby strapped in a stroller and glancing over 3 yo at the playground. I meekly suggested that she e-mail me the names of these people. And then she mentioned, by the way, this psychologist friend of her husband is coming into town on Friday since he has to testify, and he does educational testing, but at less than half of the cost. He had to cancel all his appointments on Friday, so she is sure that he would love to get some work done. I said that it's a good option to consider. Then I looked at myself, covered in mush, and thought: am I going to have time to go home, look up these people online, call and ask around, and then decide? I said, please send me his number and tell him I would like to have my son tested on Friday.

We spoke on the phone, and agreed that the psychologist will come to my house after he's finished testifying. I told 7 yo that a psychologist will be coming. He asked me whether he will be able to read his mind. I laughed and said, no, but he will see what we can do to help you learn better. He wanted to know exactly what the psychologist will be doing. I said that I did not know, and I was very careful not to use the word "test".

On Friday, the testing took place. As a psychometrist was working with 7 yo, I chatted with the psychologist about my concerns. I had to fill out a few questionnaires. When I saw one of them, I laughed: a friend of mine just fumed on Facebook the other week about these ridiculous statements: "My child behaves like an angel", "My child is perfect in every way". Do people really answer "always"? So thank you for advance warning.

I was quite nervous whether 7 yo will sit still for three hours of testing, whether he will lose his temper and throw a tantrum. Well, he worked the whole time and seemed to be totally fine. This made me feel totally crazy: maybe he will work hard for others, but not for me? Maybe I'm in the way of his learning? He told me: "I had hard time with spelling but I just need to sound out the words". Sure, because I never tried to provide him with this piece of information. Silly mommy, just tell him to sound them out!

After everyone left, I asked 7 yo to tell me a bit about what he had to do. He described some activities, and he told me which ones he liked. He mentioned that he had to divide 7 by 2. I asked him, what was the answer and he said that he did not get to it. I asked him, was this hard? He thought and said that some of it was. I paused and asked him, but even when it was hard, you did not get angry and cry? He said, no, because then they would think that he's acting like a baby. I paused and asked again, so why do you scream at me, aren't you acting like a baby? He said, nobody is watching me and would make fun of me.

Right. So he feels comfortable at home to express his frustration, but he was too embarrassed to do that in front of the psychometrist. Did he dupe the system? What happens if I do send him to school? Will he keep it together there, bow to peer pressure only to melt down completely later, in the safety of our home?

This Friday night, my brother-in-law came over with his girlfriend, who is a music teacher. When we chatted a bit about this whole thing, she told me that a lot of parents tell her that kids do just that, rip off the mask of holding it all together as soon as they are in their parents' car. And on an unrelated note, watching 7 yo read "Winnie the Pooh" on the floor and giggle, she said that her students do not do that, because they don't understand what they read or enjoy it, they just get tested on it.

So I am waiting for results, and looking to see what kind of adjustments we'll have to do.

I guess my resistance to testing is in the same hypothetical realm as having everything set for Shabbos before chatzot: both are lovely to consider, but often impossible to pull off.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

three examples of child-led learning

We are at the homeschooling coop. 7 yo is sitting next to his good friend, who is eating some kind of candy, of gusher type. The friend offers some to 7 yo. He says that he needs to see the package, to check if it's kosher. Upon expecting the small pouch, he says that it's not. His friend asks whether he can just look at the candy and decide by sight, but 7 yo says that he cannot have it.

Two main objectives of kashrut are achieved: being thoughtful about what goes in your mouth, and being able to control yourself.


This morning, we are doing math. 7yo's work is identifying numbers up to 1000. He usually does two pages, sometimes one if it's too tough. This morning he takes a look and decides that he wants to do three pages. He feels confident and goes right on ahead.


Next, we are doing Lashon HaTorah. He has a page of writing in translations, something that he dreaded the previous time and skipped in favor of the following, easier page of cutting and pasting. This time, he gets colored pencils, on his own colors in the suffixes, highlights the plural yud, and starts on the translation. On the words is "kindness", in plural. He says, oh, I get to write three S. I mention that he will have to add -es, and he asks, why. I explain about words ending in -s and -x, and how in order to make them plural, you add -es. He giggles and writes "kindnesses". A natural grammar lesson, sneaked in on a need-to-know basis. No drill necessary, and he asks what happens with plural of "horse".

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

butting heads

Yesterday, we had one of those homeschooling days that look so good on paper and make people want to homeschool their kids. I had a dental appointment first thing in the morning, so I left my husband in charge of getting kids started on their schoolwork. So I got to get out by myself and take care of my health. The boys finished everything on their list by 11, before the baby woke up from his nap. Then we drove to JCPenney to take a family picture. My husband met us there. Afterwards, he went back to work and we went bike riding on a wooded trail near the mall. We saw deer. Then we came home, 9 yo played on his DS while I made tacos for dinner, their favorite, and one of my easiest meals. After dinner, my MIL came over, and I took 9 yo on a one-to-one outing to Costco.

Sounds so ideal, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, it did not go as smoothly as it sounds. While I was at the dentist, and my husband was in charge, 7 yo was supposed to copy number words for his spelling. My husband wrote them in script. 7 yo promptly threw a fit, since he cannot copy script. My husband wrote them all in capitals, and 7 yo copied them just like that. By the time I got back and saw this, I rewrote them in lowercase, and he copied those, too. He also threw a fit about a page of translations in Lashon HaTorah, while 9 yo objected to his mishna assignment. All the time, I was telling the kids that we will need to change into white shirts before we take this photo, and the kids were not listening. Next thing I know, we are running late, 7 yo is throwing a fit that he does not want to wear his shabbos shirt and he does not want to take a picture, while 9 yo is throwing a fit that he wants to be dropped off at home right after the picture because he does not want to go bike riding, he much rather play DS. 7 yo compromised by packing clothes to change into before we go bike riding. Then 3 yo is melting down in the car; she was wearing her jacket, but she does not want to be buckled up on top of her jacket. And I am trying to grab my sheitel and do some sort of make-up. Heck, we are only doing this picture because I got a Groupon and because the last (and only) family picture we took was when 3 yo was 9 months.

So we are driving in the car in silence, since I totally blew my lid. I did not have any lunch, either. And I forgot to pack up water.

When we got to JCPenney, we loosen up, but  now the baby is getting tired, so every time I hold him and try to face him towards the camera, he turns around, looking to nurse. Then I keep on blinking and ruining all those nice shots where everyone else is looking at the camera. Then the boys start making faces. Then 3 yo starts to sulk. Finally, there are some shots which would pass.

I take off my sheitel and tell 7 yo to change into his bike riding clothes. He discovers that he did not bring the bag that he packed. I take them all to the car, hoping that his bag was left there. 9 yo continues his whine how he much rather go home. The bag is not in the car, but I have a bag with emergency change of clothes for all the kids (too many summer wadings). 7 yo changes, strewing his shabbos clothes all over the van. The baby starts his pre-nap growling. We start driving, looking for the parking for this trail. Thankfully, I found it right away. As soon as we get there, the boys unload their bikes and hop right on.  Now 3 yo starts her thing about how she does not want to walk... the baby continues humming to himself, trying to fall asleep. The boys shoot ahead on their bikes, we are moseying along at our pace. Then the boys come back, asking how long it will be taking us to catch up.

I just want to stroll on this warm afternoon, and enjoy the last warm rays of the sun. I just want a bit of quiet. I just want someone to admit that they are having a good time.

We crossed a few bridges, saw ducks and deer grazing in the woods. A stag actually bounded right in front of us, crossing the trail. The boys talked and biked, 3 yo took her time to crunch up the leaves, the baby fell asleep.

Soon, we headed back, to beat the afternoon traffic. As soon as we got home, 9 yo went straight to his DS. I told him, for half an hour. When the time was up, I reminded him to save his game and get off. 7 yo came as an ambassador to notify me that he's in the middle of the battle and will not be getting off in 2 minutes. I said, he either needs to get out, or just to shut it down. He did not comply. I pried the DS away from him. He jumped up in rage, bumped his head on the upper bunk. Next thing, both boys are hysterically yelling at me about how the battle and the game are messed up. And I'm yelling back that I will put DS in the garbage.

I am trying to get the kids to set the table for dinner, but 9 yo is majorly upset. He tells me how deprived he feels of DS time, how other average homeschool kids get more time to play computer games. I do not  have a lot of patience at this point. 7 yo takes a different tack, that of appeasement: he keeps complimenting the food, and thanks me for all the good things that happened today. 9 yo says: "Thanks for the good AND the bad" and breaks down, crying. I give him a minute. Then he asks to do something one-on-one. I tell him how we need an adult to watch the other kids in order to go out.

That's when my MIL comes over and I decide: I need to go to Costco anyway, it is only 6 pm and I can take just him. I ask him whether he would like to do this as an outing, and he agrees. 7 yo's immediate reaction: what about me? But I am firm, and off we go.

We end up talking a bit, and hanging out. He pushes the cart and comments how light it is, without his siblings inside. He plays around, switching the carts in the parking lot. We watch a Vitamix demonstration, where the guy makes spinach "ice cream". I joke that next time I should put spinach in his smoothie and he giggles. He makes me compare the nutritional facts on the crackers and I discover that Ritz is just as healthy as nearby funky seeded cracker. We get to the diapers and we see that Kirkland and Huggies brand are exact same price per diaper and same amount of diapers in a box, yet the boxes are differently shaped. He starts figuring out whether this brand of diapers is more squished than that, and tells me how he would need to measure the area of one side of the box and multiply it by height. I sort of do not care at this point, so I pick the box that is easier to stick under the cart.

When we get to the car, he tells me how he wants to have a day with no rules, which translates into a day of unlimited DS time. I mull it over and tell him that I will let him know in the morning.

Well, the baby decides to throw a two-hour yelling fit in the middle of the night. I rock him, my husband rocks him, but I do not nurse. Around 6:30 am, the door to my bedroom opens, in marches 9 yo hauling his awake baby brother: "Here!' And can I have a day with no rules?" I am still trying to open my eyes. "Yes, you can, just daven and get dressed first."

He is calling it a day with not rules. I'm calling it a mental health day.

Do you end up butting heads with your kids that much?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Life of Fred

I kept my eye out to buy Life of Fred math series for over a year. Since they come out to be pricey once you get all the books, I did not buy them right away. During the summer, through some sale, I saw them at the cheapest and scooped them up. I got all ten books in the elementary series. During major unschooling phase, it made sense to get them, especially since my back-up curriculum was Math Mammoth and a paperback Spectrum book, both of which were way cheaper than any consumable textbook.

When I got the books, the boys sat down and read them like they read literature. I don't think either one of them finished the entire series. What I do know is that neither pulled out a pencil and paper and solved any problems in the books. They giggled while reading, they told me how Fred has a pet tiger, and tidbits from the books entered here and there. After the initial read-through, the books went to collect dust on the shelf.

A few weeks ago I was planning to write a post about all these good intentions we have, and the resources we acquire, only to be pushed aside by the kids who have their own interests and agenda. Life of Fred was going to be a shining example of that elusive curriculum, obtained at a cost, used once, and discarded. Yet my kids proved me wrong again.

We are in the middle of borrowing and carrying with 7 yo. He is quite worried about it. When he has a word problem, he knows what he has to do, but when it is just columns of addition and subtraction, he gets lost and discouraged. Besides, he still confuses which number should be subtracted from which. Basically, he went back to tantrums about math. One of those days, when I was writing up a schedule, Life of Fred came up. I suggested we do that instead of his workbook, but he has to work on "Your Turn To Play". He agreed. We started in the beginning, which was quite easy. The boys knew the story line (I did not), and 9 yo flew through all assignments. 7 yo had no problem with the math component, but was unsure about writing down the names of the days of the week.

We ended up using Life of Fred just a few times, but since then, the boys pulled out the rest of books and are busy rereading them. I guess it was not such a waste of money at the end.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

why would anyone be doing this?

See these angles, studiously working together each in their workbook? No, this is not a posed photo, but it lasted a total of four minutes.

Today I had a visit from a friend who is considering homeschooling her older child. Shew wanted to see what curriculum I use. I warned her that we do not have much in the way of curriculum nowadays, but sure, come see what I've got. Since there was a bit of back-and-forth about when and whether she would come at all, I decided not to tell the kids in advance. We did not have a smooth morning, but I was hoping that things would calm down by the afternoon. I do not believe in whitewashing what homeschooling is really like, but I did not expect my kids to put the worst foot forward.

As soon as she got here, with her two sweet younger kids, my kids got off the wall. 3 yo was running around yelling, 9 yo was interjecting and I was having a hard time carrying on a conversation. Her kids clung to her. I suggested going down to the basement, where the toys are. Her kids would not go without her, which is totally understandable since mine were behaving like wildebeests. I got around to showing math (about the only subject in which we follow a curriculum) and she started telling me about the reservations that she has, but we did not get far. My kids started jumping and sliding down a mattress. 9 yo started fighting with the younger ones. 3 yo screamed into her baby's face. I tried telling her that this is not the way she would want to be treated, and she should not treat others like that, but she ran away laughing.

This lady looked at me and asked two pointed questions: is there any place I can send the kids for a bit, and do I get out to do anything on my own? The answer to both questions was no. I told her that I am not the best spokesperson for homeschooling at the moment. She had a look of someone not sure why anyone would be doing this in the first place. And I could not explain why this makes sense. I started trying to summon some of our better moments, but I kept getting interrupted by sulking 9 yo. As a final salvo, he removed the pedal off the baby gate, locking us in the basement. There I am, fumbling with the gate, while she is patiently waiting next to me...

Ooh, this was quite embarrassing. So why am I doing this? My kids have no middos, slack off, do not do their schoolwork and do not allow for a grown-up conversation.

Yet, just as I am despairing, everything gets flipped.

At dinner, 7 yo mentioned how he would like to have African Grey Parrot as a pet, since it is so smart and you can teach it things. He was planning to teach it mathematics, and everything that he knows. I probed what all this knowledge included, and he said something about Hashem. 9 yo said that African Grey has intelligence of a 6 year old, so he could be taught to think about Hashem. I said that animals cannot know about Hashem and cannot be taught such abstract ideas. That lead to a question: what does every kid at the table know about Hashem? 3 yo first demurred, but then said that we daven to Hashem. I asked her why, and she said, that's what we are supposed to do. 7 yo passed, saying that he is asking questions, not ready to answer. 9 yo said that Hashem created everything, and is in charge of everything, and was always here and knows why everything is the way it is. 7 yo wanted to know how Hashem was there before the world was here, and all of a sudden we are discussing dark matter (all of this while I am trying to feed the baby).

I got that distinct feeling of satisfaction, this is what homeschooling is about: a nice open dinner conversation, everyone is engaged and comfortable sharing or passing, religion and science freely mixing, and my children expressing ideas about G-d on their level, each of them true.

3 yo all of a sudden piped up: "Speaking about G-d... G-d bless America!" We were listening to that in the car earlier today. The boys cracked up, then 7 yo asked: "Why should Hashem bless America?" That led to another discussion about religious freedom. 9 yo knew that it is part of the Bill of Rights, and no, I did not teach that to him, he must have read it on his own. I also explained how Jews are not free to practice in every country, and this makes America special.

In a nutshell, homeschooling is tough. There are so many things to despair about, and so many things to feel good about. I just need to work on getting us more towards those feel-good moments.

Monday, October 28, 2013

dancing the dance/stumbling in the fog

Some days, we make a list, get everything done before lunch, the boys are agreeable and pleasant enough, then the baby goes for a nap, older kids assemble themselves to chill, and I get a break. On those days, I feel like we are dancing.

Other days, it is an uphill battle. Nobody listens, everyone sulks, I feel snappy and stretched too thin, nothing gets done, and we are all grumpy and exhausted by each other's presence. I am groping in the fog, trying to find my way back to the dance floor.

I give more structure, and my kids push back against it. Hard.

I look at 9 yo, as his desire for a perpetual shortcut, the "easy way out" and keep thinking: this kid will do really well later on in life. He'll invent things because he's lazy to do something the proper way. But now we have to survive till that point. Today, instead of writing "he sanctified" he wrote "he holidized". When I asked him, why, he said that it was easier. It is easier to invent a new word than tediously copy one.

I look at 7 yo, how he's struggling with reading Hebrew. He gets the whole prefix/shoresh/suffix deal, but he wants to be able to see a word and know what it is and what it sounds like right away. He's a sight reader, whole word reader. This is bizarre, since I am a believer in phonics and we did Bob books for English reading. Hebrew is a whole new beast, with changing nekudot and the related words sounding so different. Besides, his frustration level rises so suddenly, that one minute he's sitting next to me, working hard and at peace, and the next, the book is flying across the room and he's arching his back, screaming. Today I asked him what he would like to do for modern Hebrew practice. We hit a roadblock in Rosetta Stone, which he is not ready to overcome, and he did not want to go back and finish Llama. I said that I have S'fateinu, and he seemed interested in taking a look. He did the first 6 pages of first grade book, remarking that he likes it. He read all the words, underlined and circled, but he drew the line at coloring in the pictures. Then he told me exactly where he wants to stop ( on page 7) and that he wants to do 6 pages every day. I was thinking of my homeschooling friend and her three year rule: it is possible to learn all the material very quickly and pleasantly when the student is mature enough instead of butting heads with a younger child over concepts and skills. Why not wait and make it easy?

I thought that by now I would have more of a rhythm, of a groove. I thought that I would be wiser, know what I am doing. Instead, a lot of it feels like making the same mistakes again and again.

If all is well, tomorrow will be another day and we will all get another chance to start anew.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Shmuel and Ishmael

My husband asked 9 yo what does he think is the difference between Shmuel and Ishamel. Without missing a beat, he answered:
"G-d listened to Ishmael, while Shmuel listened to G-d."


In Vayeitze, we got to the part where Yakov promises maaser ( a tenth) to Hashem. 9 yo said, this is the first maaser. I said that there was another person who previously gave maaser. I threw in Krispy Kreme as a reward. He sat with Chumash for hours, and found it. I got a sneaky review of the p'shat from beginning of B'reishit.

Friday, October 18, 2013

thoughts on "crying it out"

"Crying it out" had gotten a bad rep. One friend recently posted on facebook: why would anyone let their baby cry it out? The response was: because you are desperate. And because it works, and the kids (and parents) finally sleep,

Oh, we are supposed to be all cuddly and lovey-dovey. All the time. Even when the kids would have deserved that smack on the behind (from the olden days). Even when we spent the whole day catering to everyone's needs and nobody bothered to ask, what do you need, Mom? Even when there has not been a good night of sleep in months and months, and no break,  we are supposed to be calm and patient saints. Yet, once you talk to these "saints" it becomes clear pretty quickly that they have a whole team behind them. Usually there is a husband with a flexible job, or a 9-to-5 job, home for dinner. Usually that said husband lets the mom sleep in in the morning, or gets her breakfast, or takes the kids out of the house for a couple hours. Usually there is some other adult doing some kind of other duty: regular babysitter, house cleaner, au pair, teenager. Then the mom gets to be all saintly, and radiate peace and calm in all those trying situations. Those tend to be the types who are oh-so-opposed to "crying it out".

My husband has not been home since yesterday's morning. First thing, 9 yo threw a fir about davening and life in general. We were late for a concert in Spivey Hall which 9 yo called babyish despite enjoying it. We were late to taekwondo because I tried bribing everyone with a run to Krispy Kreme, hoping to get a kvetchy baby extra twenty minutes of a nap in the moving car. Next thing I know, we are stuck in traffic, baby is yelling anyway, one kid is freaking out because I said we are only getting original glazed form a drive-thru, next kid is freaking out that we are late to taekwndo and we should just go home....

Then it is me, alone, sitting in taekwondo lounge with 3 yo and the baby. Then I have to serve dinner which at least one kid finds a fault with, then tuck everyone into bed, then make Shabbos. I managed to burn rice so thoroughly that the pot had to go in the garbage, not to mention that I had to cook rice again. Then I have to do at least basic straightening up. No other adult in sight, not till Friday afternoon.

Just as I am turning in, the baby is up. Paci is rejected, so I nurse and go to sleep. Then, an hour later, 3 yo is uncharacteristically up, crying. I go and say something to her or other, sorry, I'm a bit fuzzy on that, but she gets quiet. Then, just as I manage to fall asleep again, the baby is up again. No paci, I just nursed him, and he is screaming, and waking up 9 yo.

Oh, just shush, just let me sleep. Just somebody do something, anything, to get him quiet, and get me some sleep. Remember, my husband is not home, so there is no sleeping in in the morning, no way that I can make up this exhausting stretch. He is yelling, I am trying to alternate between a paci and nursing and a tight swaddle. That hard edge of despair is there. You want an emergency? This is it. Now I am remembering that they have those new parent hotlines, call any time of day or night. But at that moment of total despair, I was not thinking of that. I was thinking, just shush, shush already.

You know what? He was crying, I was crying. We were both crying it out. Am I not a person, too? Do I not deserve a bit of compassion? We would have all been better off if I would have just left him in his crib, crying, then race frantically from one corner of the room to another, clutching him. And it would have been better for all if I would have let him cry it out a month ago, and be sleeping through the night now.

I did "cry it out" with my oldest. It took one night, 40 minutes of crying (his and mine, in separate rooms), but that kid slept through the night ever since. He is the best sleeper out of all of them. I do not regret it, not one bit. If he's going to be in therapy, it will not be for this.

Do not throw suggestions at me, unless you are willing to be on my speed-dial and be summoned in the middle of the night to come and work your magic. Do not throw soothing words. They do not help when you get that desperate. When it gets to this point, you just need your sleep and sanity, and you need that kid to be quiet.

Hopefully, you will have your support team, and you can read this, shake your head at my "unenlightened" ways and say that nobody should get so cruel. Then you will send the kids out to your husband, go take your solitary morning walk, and complain how if only people were all a bit calmer, the world would be a better place.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

why more sturcture?

Deep down, I hate surprises (ask the people who were unsuccessful in throwing a surprise baby shower for me when I was pregnant with my oldest; I was dead set to go to IKEA that Sunday and they basically had to sit me down to keep me from being absent). So having a plan is semi-essential to my being. My oldest is the same way; he always likes to know what's going on. 7 yo will quite often ask what's planned, too. With chagim, and a different schedule every day, and baby waking up at all hours, it was becoming a  mayhem. My friend likens a good messy unschooling day to a great party. I like my parties slightly less rambunctious, where guests clean up after themselves...

One of my biggest concerns with our unschooling period was what to do with 9 yo, as he clearly needed more structure to get anything done. He is brimming with ideas, but he is very disorganized, so he is having hard time getting anything done unless it is put down in writing somewhere and then reinforced. We had many a night when just as I was tucking him in, the regret of all the things he wanted to get done but did not get to came out.

On my end of things, I am very lucky to be guided by a few veteran homeschooling moms. One of the threads that resonated with me is that it is easy to unschool and then it is just as easy to see where there are gaps. Then you are willing to enforce those areas. I have kept up chumash with the boys over the summer, so we never unschooled that. I have decided that math is vital, so that was also part of the schedule since August. I saw that 7 yo had hard time writing, so Printing Power joined the list of daily exercises. Finally, as we were getting further in chumash, I saw a need to work on more grammar, so we picked up Lashon HaTorah. 9 yo was so lost after not doing it for 6 months! We were in the middle of a unit of tense-changing vav, and he did not have those verb conjugations down. However, after a week of working on it ( and printing out a basic conjugation chart), he is much more comfortable. 7 yo knew his prefixes well, now we are working on those suffixes.

Finally, Rosetta Stone was my offer to the boys, and they both took it up, for now. I am worried about conversational Hebrew. I was kind of hoping for getting some exposure to native speakers in a casual setting ( a Hebrew-speaking babysitter, perhaps?), but it did not happen.

Now, on coming full circle, 7 yo asked me today to pick up history and science. While on the surface this is a request for even more structured learning, it is also a child-led inquiry. In this regard, that little unschooling experiment was a success: when they are interested and ready to learn it, they will ask for it.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

back to more structured learning

These past two days we went back to having more of a structured day. The kids had breakfast, got dressed and davened as usual, and then I wrote up the plan for the day. Both days they were done with the schoolwork by lunch, which meant that they worked from 9 till 12 ( with breaks). Both days we had an outing in the afternoon. Even though the baby did not nap as much as I wanted him to, staying home while he napped and working with the boys helped. I even dare say, these two days went along the lines I would like our days to go: a good balance of assigned work, spontaneous learning and play.

In a nutshell, here is what 9 yo was assigned to do:

  • math
  • chumash
  • mishna-with rebbe
  • Lashon HaTorah
  • script
  • Rosetta Stone-Hebrew

Here is what 7 yo was assigned to do:

  • math
  • chumash
  • Lashon HaTorah
  • Printing Power
  • Rosetta Stone-Hebrew

Yesterday we went to mini-golf as a siyum for 9 yo completing parshat Noach. He gave a short d'var torah on the Rashi which explained the difference between the generation of the flood and the generation of the dispersal. Today we went to see a new Marco Polo exhibit. Both days we were home by 4, which gave me enough time to cook dinner.

Both days the kids spent quite a bit of time reading and playing. 9 yo killed at least an hour each day on his DS. They watched some TV (documentaries and Magic School Bus, their choice). 3 yo did her projects and played. I caught her this morning leafing through a chapter book.

These two days, structure felt nice.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

buy life insurance

This unbelievable and touching story has been posted and reposted today. The sum of remarks was that this man's life is inspiring. While this is true, my first reaction to it was: he did not have life insurance! ( Caveat: I do not know how life insurance works in Israel, but I assume it is similar enough to the States). Therefore, his poor widow, in addition to coping with his death, now faces a life of financial struggle. She will have to rely on chesed of others instead of her husband doing chesed to her and their children, and providing the family with income, in case of his demise.

Many years ago, when we have been married just two years, with a brand-new baby, still struggling financially, our next-door neighbor dropped dead. He was our age, and the couple had been also newly married. It was shocking, it was terrible, and I had all these questions. My older and wiser friend was there to talk to me, but one of the first things she told me to do, to insure ourselves from just such a loss, is to buy life insurance. Now, we had no money. We were totally on our own, and there were bills to pay, and we were young, and how could something so morbid be a priority...

We pinched, went without silver candlesticks, and bought life insurance. I did not even get such a great rate, due to some health issues, but at least I knew that if, G-d forbid something would happen to either me or my husband, our children would be provided for.

A year later, another friend told me a sad tale of a father of many kids who just died, and now the community was straining and scrambling to provide for the family. My automatic response was: buy life insurance.

Today's story is no different. It is wonderful that this guy was such an incredible baal tzedakah (charitable giver), it is humbling to think what he went without to provide for others, and it is beautiful that he touched so many people. But doesn't tzedakah start at home? I wish that he was not such a thrifty guy, and spent some of his money on life insurance. We all would like to think that we will live forever, or, at least, until a ripe golden age. Unfortunately, that does not always happen. Why add to the tragedy of being taken when still young with additional monetary strain on your loved ones?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

doubting myself

We have been listening to "Tom Sawyer" in the car. After Tom testifies against Injun Joe, the townspeople feel that he could become a president, if he does not get hung first. That encapsulates the way I feel about my boys.

I am totally relating to Aunt Polly, ready to "whip" them one moment for some infraction, and then they do or say something so sweet, and I just melt. This morning I could not get them through breakfast and davening and 9 yo misplaced his siddur yet again and I was fuming, as I was trying to get schoolwork done before the baby would wake up and they were just not complying. As I was getting dressed, I heard that they started on davening, and, for once, they put their individuality aside, and were rocking together, singing in unison. They were both grinning, having good time, and saying everything clearly. Ah, such a pleasure for an eye to behold! What was I even mad about?

I have been getting more and more desperate about how little writing they are producing, how, despite copious and constant reading, they are hesitant spellers, how 7 yo throws a fit over any writing that he has to do. Since 9 yo finished parshat Noach, for his siyum I asked him to come up with a d'var Torah. I was thinking more along the lines of an outline, from which to speak. He did not seem too eager, but all of a sudden, he is writing an elaborate biography of Noach, with illustrations in the margins. He is putting in details, like freshly-plowed field, and the surrounding generation of sinners. I do not know how long he will keep it up, but this is the kind of writing that I was hoping to see.

I wish I was "unenlightened", could just stick to a few textbooks, a curriculum, present it to my boys, and make them follow it, for their own good. I wish that I knew that we only have to cover this much material in this amount of time, and then I can check off that my job is done, and done well. I wish that I could just measure this, give them a test, waive the mark in the air like a flag of victory and proclaim to all: here, this is working! My kids are becoming educated!

However, it is my nature to ruminate, think things through, and question myself. I know that my boys are very different in their approach to learning. I know that what worked with 9 yo will not necessarily work with 7 yo, and some things that I am doing with 7 yo would not interest 9 yo in the least. I know that just being tough and single-minded and ignoring the child's input into learning backfires. So I cannot just enforce and enforce.

Maybe I am doing my kids a disservice by keeping them at home, yelling at them, not having a clear, planned approach and a lesson for each day. The thoughts of sending them to school, especially the oldest, having been flashing through my mind lately. Around lunch time today, after a particularly grueling Lashon HaTorah and more yelling and tears and redoing, when we were alone, I asked him: do you want to go back to school? He said, no. I asked, why not? First he said, then I will not have fresh lunch (he was having a PBJ). I pressed a bit, and then he said that he would not be able to attend homeschool zoo classes. I asked if there is anything else, and he said that he does not like finishing his work in five minutes and then sitting around, waiting for everyone. He also does not like how they daven so close to z'man kriat shema, while at home he can daven at netz. Funny, since this morning if I haven't pressed, he would have missed that z'man.

There are no easy answers. There are ups and downs. Just like Aunt Polly, I feel that my boys will go far, unless we screw up somewhere along the way....

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

planned and unplanned

I am in the middle of Lech Lecha with 7 yo, at the pasuk where Hashem tells Avram to look in all four directions. Since we spend two days on a pasuk, when we read it yesterday, I thought: "I should really print out a map of Israel and ask him to draw and label a compass rose. That way he will see why south is called desert and west is called sea." I mentioned it to him and he said, no thanks. Comes today, and I realize that I never printed out that map. While he is filling out a workbook page, I quickly printed out a map from and he very agreeably drew a compass rose on it. He asked me to draw a circle, then he added the points. I reminded him that north is usually on top, then he copied the word from the pasuk. He added the rest, very nicely asked for help in writing the letters that he was not sure how to form, got every direction in the right spot. He already knew that desert is to the south and the Mediterranean is to the west. Once the compass rose was completed, he asked me if he could hang it up in his room. He placed it over his top bunk.

This is giving me a serious pause. This kid does not like projects and decorating and workbooks. He really did just bare minimum here, but it must have tapped into something, otherwise he would not care where his final result would be.

The unplanned and totally unschool-y moment happened when I was tucking in 9 yo. We agreed that he will do his mishna assignment first thing tomorrow morning. Lately he has been very interested in defining things precisely, so he wanted to know how early he should get started. I said that he can eat breakfast, get dressed and daven first. Next thing I know, he is manipulating these and trying to figure out how many combinations could there be: first get dressed, daven and breakfast, or first get dressed, breakfast and daven... He came up with five. I told him these are called permutations. He thought there were nine possibilities. I said that there are six, for three items. I mentioned factorials (he has read most of Life of Fred, I bet they are there somewhere). I also explained what they meant. Then he wanted to know what happens if you have four: get dressed, daven, eat breakfast, look at assignments. I explained that the number of possibilites is 4*3*2 and he figured out that. We got up to five items and he calculated that 5!=120

That was so unplanned, but all of a sudden, it was so vital to know, just how many ways are there to get things done.

Maybe that's a lesson for me, too.

Monday, September 30, 2013

why nothing gets done

I was planning to do chumash with 9 yo while the baby was taking a nap. So I waited to start till the baby fell asleep. Once he was asleep and we were in the middle, I saw 3 yo looking real sleepy in the chair. I asked her whether she would like to go lie down, but she refused.

I was hoping that we will finish chumash quickly enough for me to take a little nap (baby has been waking up at 5:30), but it took longer, so just as we were completing it, I heard the baby wake up. As I was going to pick him up, I saw that 3 yo did manage to fall asleep in the chair.

I nursed the baby, saying that I will try to transfer 3 yo to her bed afterwards. If she is not soundly asleep, that will not work. But she transferred, only hugged me sleepily and murmured something.

We were supposed to go to the library, since some books are non-renewable and are due today. I wanted to go while the baby was freshly awake, so we would have time to browse. Now I am waiting for 3 yo to wake up, She has been also waking up at 5:30. By the time she wakes up, it will be time for her brother to nap, so I will have a choice: take them all in whichever state they are in, or wait some more.

Meanwhile I am supposed to throw a lasagna together. I was going to do it after the library, but I am not sure now that there will be time for that. As I am putting it together ( no-boil sheet noodles, canned marinara, ten minutes tops), I hear the baby who was sitting starting to kvetch. Do I pick him up? Try to talk to him and finish the lasagna?

The boys are on Nintendo, deep in their own world. At least we finished all the schoolwork that I planned for today, but now I feel a twinge of guilt that they are spending so much time staring at a screen instead of being out and about.

All of you homeschoolers, who have perfectly planned and choreographed days: how does it work?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

the bunny

Maybe we are suckers, but I would like to refer to this as being "big-hearted people". Now we have a custody of a white bunny.

A few weeks ago, 7 yo was coming back from shul at night with my husband. When they got home, they excitedly told me about spotting a white rabbit sitting under a bush right at the side of the road, not far from our house. 7 yo told me how he got very close to this rabbit, almost touched it before it ran away. I joked about whether it was a rabbit at all, and how weird it is that it is all white. We have a few regular grey rabbits in the neighborhood. Then I started wondering whether it is somebody's pet that escaped.

Next morning, as we were all going to shul, we spotted exact same rabbit, sitting in the exact same spot. It gave chase once the kids got too close, but I became sure that it is somebody's. Now we have a busybody lady on our block ( doesn't every block have one?!), so my husband went to knock on her door and inquire whether anyone is missing a rabbit. Sure enough, she said that our neighbors' bunny got away, and they are unable to catch it. This got the boys all fired up. They started planning mission "rescue the bunny", a la Wonderpets style. I chuckled, thinking that if the owners cannot catch it, we might not stand a chance. I was also hoping that it would not become roadkill in the meanwhile.

Since then, we have been seeing it here and there, lurking in the bushes. This week, the bunny made an appearance on our lawn. The boys gave chase, with IKEA collapsible hampers. The bunny was faster. Then, on Friday afternoon, it came back. The boys grabbed the hampers and followed. There was a a cartoonish chase around the pine, with 9 yo chasing the bunny running around and around, but he got him in the end. The boys triumphantly called my husband, who closed the hamper up, and the bunny was in the process of being returned to its owners. I stayed at home, washing the dishes and cooking something or other. Next thing I know, the boys are running back home, announcing that they are giving the bunny to us, with the cage and all. My first reaction was: absolutely not! I also know my husband well enough to know that he would not willingly accept this rabbit without consulting with me first, so I knew that something was up.

His name was Snowflake,
but since he's a boy, 9 yo renamed him Blizzard
I walked over, and saw the father of the family calmly tell us that they got this bunny for their daughter six months ago, but then she got tired of it, so they just let it go. I mean, they just threw it out of the house. Then it transpired that our next-door neighbors already captured this bunny once, returned it, and the owners did not want it back, so they threw him back out. The father was being nice and said that we can just let him go, or if we want to keep him, he will give us the cage and food.

Who the heck throws out a pet, especially a totally domesticated albino rabbit? Who teaches their kid that this pet is there when you want it, and when you don't want it, off it goes? Now I saw why we were getting this rabbit. It is almost miraculous that it lasted outdoors as long as it did.

All of this was taking place on Yom Tov, so I was quite worried that I don't know how to take care of this rabbit. The cage that the owner gave us was a bird cage, with those three little lift-up doors. You had to dismantle the top to get the bunny in. Then there was some dried pellet food, which the bunny at first refused. There was no water bottle. I figured that we will feed it lettuce and carrots for a day, till Shabbos ends, and then I can look up how to properly care for a rabbit.

As we were walking home, I explained to the kids that we are just keeping this rabbit temporarily, until I can find it a nice warm family to take care of it. My baby will be crawling any day now, and I know that I will not be able to keep him out of rabbit's food and droppings. I also know that the time is not right for us to get a pet. My cup runneth over just from homeschooling and taking care of the house, so having a pet will just add to the stress.

On Shabbos morning, we sat down to learn some parsha not far from the rabbit. Al of a sudden he closed his eyes and just collapsed. I looked at this with horror: the rabbit passed right before my eyes! The kids seemed not to notice, so I let it be for a moment, and that was a good thing, since five minutes later the rabbit was done with his nap, got up, and brushed himself, as if nothing had happened. Whew!

Last night, after Shabbos I went and did some online research. I found out that water is a must, and that the rabbit's diet should be mostly hay. The carrots, celery and lettuce that we fed him over Shabbos are OK, but they could bother his digestive system. Clover was apparently a good treat, so before 8 am the boys were outside, collecting clover for the bunny. One of them found a four-leaf clover...

Then we went to the pet store, to get hay and the water bottle. I asked about them taking the rabbit back, but they said that they cannot do it, only put it with a sign for adoption. They also recommended finding a classroom that is interested in keeping a pet, since they have a special grant program where the store would supply the cage, food and training.

Was it so hard to find a new home for this bunny? Did he have to be kicked out? Why couldn't the neighbors take five minutes to think what to do with him before cruelly setting him loose?

Finally, I am not so sure how halachically OK it was for us first to capture this rabbit, and then to take ownership on Yom Tov, but somewhere between the lesson of hashavat aveida ( returning a lost object) and tzaar baalei chaiym (not inflicting suffering on animals) I think my kids learned a few valuable lessons. Oh, and I hope that whenever we will be ready for a pet, they will take the responsibilities that come with it seriously.

I much rather be called a sucker than heartless.