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.