Thinking of home schooling? Me, too.

By Allison Barrett Carter

While the rest of the parenting world thinks ahead to summer camps and languid months of their children lounging on their sofa all day, my thoughts are consumed with the month following that: September. My desk has stacks of paper with applications and printouts. It’s the season of charter school lotteries, open houses and registration forms. My anxiety level rises as I desperately look for a perfect answer for my children’s education. Then I unearth an old email about home schooling.

I do feel fortunate to have so many educational opportunities available to my children; it is certainly a privilege to have options. But somewhere between the local public school and its poor performance report, the open choice options, the four private schools we can’t afford, and the six charter schools that are an option only if we win the lottery (literally), my husband and I are lost. What is the best fit for our family?

I grew up the product of public school, as did my husband, and we did just fine. Before we had kids we never imagined we would look for alternatives to the public school down the street.

But things have changed in six years and we, like most American parents, have been bludgeoned with news that the U.S. public school system is failing.

Articles about how public school systems are especially ill-suited for boys are huge. Books about the superior education systems of other countries are bestsellers. One of the most-watched TED Talks, with more than 9 million views, is of Ken Robinson declaring that schools “kill” creativity.

Robinson says: “Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.”

Thus, my husband and I struggle. We want to be part of America’s education solution, but not at the cost of our children’s futures.

So when an email from my friend Gina, who home-schools her three children, hit my inbox, I was intrigued.

“There is a misconception of how much time it takes to educate your children at home,” she writes. “I enjoy that we can really focus on each child’s interest. Each of my children has a separate curriculum that highlights areas where they excel as well as areas where they need more focus. Then, we have certain activities that they always do together.”

Home schooling takes the old axiom “the best teacher is no substitute for what you do at home” and boldly cuts out the middle man. Perhaps it is the solution for our family?

After reading Gina’s email, I became aware that more parents in my social circle are taking this route. I have been privy to numerous playground talks about Classical Conversations — a Christian-based home schooling support network — and my Facebook feed shows many friends teaching at home.

So I did some research. I learned that I live in a state where more children are home-schooled than enrolled in private school.

The New York Times has reported that home schooling is on the rise across the nation, regardless of race or religion. In the 2011-2012 school year, according to the Times’ reporting, nearly 1.8 million children were home-schooled in the United States, compared with 1.5 million five years earlier.

These statistics surprised me, but I guess they shouldn’t. The Internet has opened many alternative educational opportunities; it was only a matter of time before individualized at-home learning reaped the benefits. America is a nation of “do-it-yourselfers” full of grit and determination, so why should we not DIY what matters most: our children’s education.

The Internet offers a potential home schooling parent free step-by-step how-to’s, lesson plans, books, activities, proposed daily schedules, and active communities for support and connection. In my immediate area, I have found multiple Facebook groups of home schooling parents who meet regularly for lessons and field trips.

Add to this the popular lifestyle blogs, such as the Handmade Home, that dedicate entire series to their home schooling tips, and I can’t help but romanticize the idea. It seems like a simpler, slower way of life. No more school buses, 6 p.m. homework battles or packing lunchboxes at 7 a.m. I can change my office into a classroom and our home will ooze family time and learning.

With the help of the Internet, home schooling has become normalized. In fact, with all my clicking and reading, I find myself excited about it.

I am an educated woman with a degree from a top public university; why wouldn’t I be able to teach my own children elementary school topics? After all, the media keeps telling me that many teachers may not be qualified. Maybe I am? With the Internet as my partner, I feel strong.

Home schooling isn’t right for everyone. It is a commitment and it requires an intense dedication from the entire family. My husband and I are aware that a making a decision to become our children’s primary educators is a big one. And like all things in education, there are pitfalls to the decision.

But as families like mine tire of waiting for our country to fix public education, as the Internet puts resources at our fingertips, as it becomes normalized and even romanticized, home schooling is a serious contender for our educational choice this fall. I might just decide to not worry about my lottery chances and DIY it.

Allison Barrett Carter is a freelance writer in North Carolina. She blogs at allisonbarrettcarter.com.

 

Why the suburbs are all wrong for my kids

“LOOK. AT. THE. DEER!” I say this to my sons, 11 and 14, as we do our normal weeknight swing down the tree-lined driveway, home from what feels like their 10th basketball practice of the week. But my boys are buried in their iPhones, watching for their friends’ reactions/likes/comments on one of whatever social media apps of the moment.

Amazing things are going on around them – I mean, I am floored, every time, by seeing the deer just calmly hanging out a few feet away, staring right at me, not even running away from our car. But unlike many parents, I don’t think it’s social media that has led to my kids’ indifference. I’ve firmly decided to place the much of the blame squarely on the suburbs. Yes – having my kids grow up in the beautiful, sheltered, suburban world of the suburbs of Maryland is the problem.

I grew up in Chicago, in a vibrant neighborhood where the noise was my friend and nobody drove me anywhere. Sounds were all around me, and I walked everywhere, myself, alone. I fell asleep to the din of the Lunt Avenue buses outside my bedroom window, and the chatter of the second-floor neighbors talking with my mom because the windows were open. I woke up to the scent of blueberry muffins baking at Swiss Pastry across the alleyway, and the clanks of the first morning’s game of Kick the Can. From the moment I woke up, I was never lonely or bored. Sounds and people enticed me to go out and explore. Everything was outside, awaiting me.

I felt connected to all the neighborhood kids, shops, workers – even the caretaker of the pond at our beloved Indian Boundary Park, which was just a baseball’s throw away. It was at that pond that I saw my first turtle and discovered how they move and feel.

And that’s what I’m afraid my boys don’t have by living in the suburbs. That feeling of being connected. I bet my boys have never stolen or felt a turtle. They’ve probably watched animal tricks on the Internet and have likely Googled “turtles” when they needed to learn about them for a school project. My younger son does know the neighborhood kids, but my older one is always out at some structured activity or sports practice he gets to by car.

They don’t have the kind of life where they can walk themselves to activities and chat with store owners along the way. They don’t have to figure out bus numbers and routes or try new things on their own. The suburbs: The planned community where everything is available, by car. With a schedule. With parents in charge.

Sometimes, at night, as I look out our big living room window at the woods behind our house. It’s pretty, but unnerving. It’s too quiet. I’m looking for some activity – even the deer – and waiting for something to happen. The suburbs, with all of their supposed security and conveniences, and book clubs for moms and hectic sports leagues for kids, are pretty lonely.

Do my kids feel the loneliness of the suburbs? I don’t think so. I think it feels like their haven, their home. It’s all they’ve ever known. But when my son has an urgent request for candy or a protractor for homework, the need will pass that night, unfulfilled, unless he can persuade me to drive him to CVS. If we lived in a neighborhood like the one I grew up in, he could walk to the drugstore to get it himself. He’d learn responsibility, independence and redefine initiative.

And as for me, the mom in the suburbs: Sometimes I just don’t feel like driving over to Starbucks to meet a friend for coffee. I yearn for the way it was when I grew up, in that three-story apartment in West Rogers Park, where our French windows stayed open all the time, and my mom could yell up to her friend on the second floor, to come have an iced tea. It’s not  just that I’m a mother who wants it to be like it was “back in my day.” I wish for  my kids to experience some of the kind of childhood and independence I gained from living in the city.

It’s not just helicopter parenting, structured play dates and social media that have made their lives seemingly easier, or perhaps if not easier, lazier. It’s living in the burbs. I want my boys to experience how the little things in everyday life don’t always come so easy. I remember my mom searching for a parking spot on the street, carrying groceries way farther than across a porch, of trusting me to walk alone every day, make friends with the drugstore owner and actually talk to strangers.
I’m not saying that I wish I was a mom carrying groceries for blocks and blocks. I think that’s what I wanted to avoid when we first moved to the suburbs. I wanted the ease and convenience of a driveway, a front porch. But now all I feel is an anemic lifestyle. Car to the gym to home to school to home to work to the office to store to home again. Then the evening carpools start. For the kids, and I guess, for me, there’s no grit, no problem-solving necessary to get from Point A to Point B. And that’s what I’m afraid my children aren’t learning by living in this supposed utopia — a way of life that fosters self-reliance and problem-solving.

Why not just leave? Well, I can’t … literally and logistically. Legally, I’m divorced and couldn’t go even if I wanted to. But even if I could go, I wouldn’t want to uproot my  boys now, to take them away from their dad, school and sports teams, and this neighborhood they consider home. They’re living their version of childhood, and they think this suburban one is just fine. But will they one day look back on this childhood with a misty eye, like I think of mine? Will I?
The irony is, I created this situation. As much as I loved my childhood as a kid, once I was in my 20s, I envisioned having kids of my own and giving them a “nicer” and safer life. I wanted to grow up and get a comfortable house for my family with the extras that I never had. A real rec room. A yard. space.
I got married. I got the big house. I gave them a back yard and better schools and safer streets. The idea that all the stability I thought suburban life would bring them, and me, seems almost silly now.

I am restless here, and now there’s a longing for what I’ve lost, and for what they’ll never have – the buzz outside the windows, the sense of being part of something you don’t have to pay or try out for to join, expressions on real faces when they share exciting news with friends, not emojis from miles away.
I’d gladly give back their hoverboard and Xbox, Instagram accounts and carpools for a place and time that’s more of the childhood I had. Some would argue I had less. But I was happy. And decades later, sounds of the city still comfort me. Even when I don’t hear them, I can remember.
What will my sons remember? I don’t think it will be a sense of excitement, wondering who is outside, or which random people they will meet on their walk to school. They won’t learn how to make nice with shopkeepers or smell the bakery as they walk past. But perhaps they’ll remember the safety and predictability of the suburbs. And for them, if not me, maybe that’s enough.

Erin Mantz is a writer, marketing professional, and mother of two boys. She tweets @erinmantz.

Three things parents should say to girls to help them build a positive body image

By Katie Hurley

“Hello, I’m a fat person, fat, fat, fat.”

Taken out of context, these words, from the mouth of a 6-year-old female toy tester at the Mattel headquarters, are a bit jarring. They are the kind of words you hope your child won’t use out in the world. They are words laced with hurt and judgment.

For her Time cover story on the new and improved Barbie, Eliana Dockterman observed young girls at play with the new dolls. While the first child referenced was direct with her body comments, another girl attempted to spare the feelings of the doll by spelling out the word, “F-A-T.”

How do very young children learn to judge others by the shapes and sizes of their bodies? Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer. Between subtle messages in the home, the influence of media, peer interactions and the shrinking of childhood (many girls are growing up quickly these days), young girls consume and internalize countless messages about body image every single day.

Many parents know to be careful about the words they use when discussing their own bodies. We know, for example, that saying things like, “I feel fat today” or “do I look fat in these jeans?” sends harmful messages to young girls. Parents avoid those overt statements and replace them with comments about physical strength in an effort to teach young girls body confidence. But what about the most subtle statements that sometimes slip through the cracks?

Standing in line at Gap not long ago, I witnessed a mother-daughter conversation that sent a subtle, but powerful message about body image. A young girl, about 6 years old, ran up to her mother with a pair of winter gloves in her hands. “I found some but I don’t like them that much,” she stated, in that matter-of-fact tone kids of that age often use. “They make my fingers look too skinny.” She looked up her mom for confirmation. Her mother’s response took me by surprise. “That’s better than looking fat,” she uttered, without missing a beat.

Perhaps it was an isolated incident. We’ve all experienced impatient moments and bad days and sometimes we respond before we consider the potential impact of the response. But what if it wasn’t an isolated incident? What if that message was one of many?

For years, I worked with a young girl who struggled with body image, self-esteem, and anxiety. Her home life was defined by a seemingly endless discussion on weight gain, weight loss, exercise and fad diets.

Ever on a quest to find the perfect diet, her mother constantly removed foods from the house and talked obsessively about calories, sugars and “bad” foods. Don’t get me wrong; her mother had good intentions. Maintaining a healthy weight was a lifelong struggle for her, and she wanted to make the challenge easier for her daughter.

The body and diet talk was overwhelming for this young girl, however, and she developed her own coping strategy to combat the negative emotions she experienced almost daily: sneak eating. She saved her coins to purchase snacks from the school vending machine and ate them in the dark of night. In doing so, she lived up to her own carefully constructed self-fulfilling prophecy: a young girl powerless over the lure of junk food.

Recent findings show that kids as young as 32 months pick up on fat shaming attitudes of their moms, and a report released by Common Sense Media reveals that half of the girls and one-third of the boys between 6 and 8 think their ideal weight is thinner than their current size. It’s time to consider how we talk to kids about body image.

It’s easy to set a few rules around body talk, including removing “fat” from your vocabulary and not commenting on the size or shape of someone else’s body. Where it gets complicated, however, is when your daughter comes home with difficult questions. “Am I fat?” or “will I get fat if I eat this?” speak volumes about the inner struggle of a young child.

Cara Natterson, a pediatrician, and New York Times bestselling author of The Care and Keeping series has some great tips on talking body image with young girls.

“I have always felt that the most important thing a parent can do is, to be honest,” explains Natterson. “But when there is an issue – particularly around weight – it can be incredibly difficult to walk the fine line between protecting your child and being truthful.”

How should parents handle questions and concerns about body image? Start here:

Answer the question with a question

Natterson suggests using conversation starters to help children uncover the feelings beneath the surface. She suggests, “What makes you ask that question?” as a starting point. “This is seriously the BEST answer because it allows your child to explain where the concern is coming from,” Natterson explains.

It’s important to keep the dialogue open. When we jump in with solutions to “fix” the problem, we close down the conversation. To help young girls work through these difficult topics and overwhelming emotions, we need to listen more than we talk.

Watch your words

Words like “fat” and “chubby” are sometimes used in jest to describe animals in books, toys or other fictional characters. While that seems harmless at the moment, it can send mixed messages. Sometimes the subtle messages internalized early on can lead to negative thinking later on.

Emily Roberts, psychotherapist and author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are, cautions parents to choose their words carefully. “Don’t fat shame, weight shame or categorize others by their weight,” says Roberts, “This sends the message that their weight is what you see, not their character.”

Talk about strengths

Children need to feel heard and understood. To that end, it’s important to listen to your daughter’s concerns about body image. Empathize with her and talk about what it feels like to struggle with the emotional and physical changes that naturally occur as children grow. Then steer the conversation toward the positive.

It is imperative that young girls hear body positive messages. Talk about physical strength and what their bodies can do for them (hanging from those monkey bars isn’t easy, after all). Educate them about healthy eating and playful exercise. Cook meals together and helps your daughters take control of their own health so that will internalize a positive message: They have the power to live healthy and happy lives. That’s a message worth sharing.

Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator in Los Angeles, and the author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, Practical Parenting.

Autism: When to push and when to stop

By Lauren Swick Jordan April 1

TJ and the author. (Courtesy of the author)
My son, TJ, is 15 years old. He has autism.

When TJ was in elementary school, we worked tirelessly on so many issues. Sitting up for the entire circle time. Sitting through the entire lunch time without a meltdown. Taking turns and sharing. Accepting disappointment when something didn’t meet his expectations.

All things that every child must work on.

We also focused on more TJ-specific things, like his pencil grip. From the get-go in kindergarten, his grip was all his own. Nothing like that of the other children. His teachers tried many different ways to remind him to correct his pencil grip in hopes it would become a habit: notes on his desk with proper pencil grip pictures; verbal reminders; plastic grippers on his pencil that would forcibly enforce the correct grip.

None of them worked.

Finally, when he was in middle school, his team of teachers and therapists, along with my husband Sean and I, decided that since his handwriting was clear and legible, we didn’t need to enforce the “proper” pencil grip any longer. We let him use whichever grip he used naturally.

It hasn’t been an issue since.

As an autism parent, I frequently ask myself a big question:

What tasks and traits do we keep working on with him, and what tasks and traits do we let go of? What do we accept as being “naturally TJ,” and what do we think he will benefit from if certain things change?

I remember Temple Grandin, a famous autism pioneer, author, public speaker and person with autism, saying something like this (I’m paraphrasing): “The best thing my mother ever did for me was to treat me like the rest of my siblings.”

This has always been in the back of my mind, ever since TJ was diagnosed with autism when he was just over 2 years old. In certain cases, it is very applicable, and I believe has led TJ to some great successes:

He and his brother both sort, clean, fold and put away their own laundry. They both walk the dog. They both have cleaning responsibilities around the house.

You get the idea. It has worked in these cases for us to have the same expectations of TJ as we do of his neurotypical brother, Peter.

But what about other things we want for TJ?

Take, for example, socializing. This has been one of our biggest goals for TJ and has also been the most difficult one to master.

I struggle with this goal all the time. Should we keep pushing? Should we let it go? It is the area where TJ’s skills are the most lacking, and at the same time, in our minds, one of the most important ones.

But for TJ, is it important? At all?

The back and forth is constant, but thinking back, so were so many other struggles we have encountered in the past.

I have to remind myself that just as we have found clarity on all of those other issues we have previously had, so we will eventually find clarity on this one. We just have to stick with it, for now, hoping for even a little bit of gain. And eventually, we will know when it’s time to stop pushing and let TJ’s own socializing self (or not) take its natural course.

And I have to remind myself that with each new issue that comes up, we will help TJ tackle it as best as we all can — challenging him where we can for growth, and stepping back where we need to.

Time will tell. It always does.

Lauren Swick Jordan is a frequent On Parenting writer and blogs at Laughing…like it’s my job.

Teacher says: Want your child to succeed in school? Help them clean out their backpack.

One of my high school students had asked for help with his homework. “Of course, I’ll help,” I answered.

I told him to find it and watched as he hauled his heavy backpack onto one of the classroom desks and started to dig.

I allowed him a couple of minutes of futile search before asking him to take everything out to see whether he could throw anything away. He claimed he didn’t, but proceeded with enthusiasm.

I wasn’t surprised.

Students love to clean out their backpacks as they believe they get to dodge work. My years of experience as a classroom teacher, however, have taught me that spending time now allows students more time on task later. The student might have thought he was getting away with something now, but I knew I would win in the end.

We found plenty of interesting things in his backpack: stacks of handouts from the previous school year, pencils, old tests and report cards as well as empty chip bags and candy wrappers, all of it covered in a disturbing orange dust.

“Cheez-It crackers” the student explained before he, with a triumphant yell, pulled out what looked like a failed origami project from his backpack.

Locating his homework had taken about 20 minutes.

All parents know that students receive enough handouts to wallpaper a house, and unless they use an organizational system, their backpacks will soon resemble an experiment in hoarding. While students might want to do their homework, they often give up if they can’t find it within a reasonable time.

Cluttered backpacks are overwhelming and it’s easy to miss something in the chaos. Students’ failure to do their homework might be due not to inability or laziness, but to a lack of organizational skills.

There is a simple fix so they will do it themselves.

Use the following five steps to help students to get organized and they might become more engaged in their homework, and in cleaning out their own backpack. If not, at least, they can no longer use the “I can’t find it, I probably left it at school” excuse we all know so well.

  1. Check your kids’ backpacks once a week. I picked Fridays for my own kids, but any day will work. We started as early as fourth grade, but don’t worry, you won’t have to organize backpacks forever. If you start early, they’ll develop the skills and habits to manage on their own.
  2. Ignore protests. Your kids will object; they’ll claim that they need every single piece of paper in the backpack. I’ve seen students cling to their papers as if they were life rafts from the Titanic. Stay firm and make sure you involve them in the process. They’ll enjoy it for a few minutes, tossing and sorting with abandon.
  3. Recycle everything that is obsolete. I’m no Marie Kondo, but a certain amount of ruthlessness is required to make a dent in the endless cycle of handouts. This is a tricky stage. Your kids might not be sure what they still need and worry about throwing away something important. Check the date on top of the paper, if it’s more than a month old, they don’t need it anymore. Work that has been completed and graded should never be returned to the backpack. You may keep some of the finished work in your home, but beware: papers will try to take over your house unless you show them who’s in charge. Save a couple of pieces of stellar work and toss the rest. Remember this, and teach your kids: OLD STUFF DOES NOT RETURN TO THE BACKPACK.
  4. Sort by subject. I don’t care whether students use folders, binders or something else, but separating papers according to the subject makes it easier to locate work both at home and in class especially for middle and high school students. Ask your kids what they would like to do. They’ll be on board and feel liberated by the entire process.
  5. Keep it up. Unless tidying the backpack becomes a habit, you’ll soon have the same mess on your hands. Luckily, keeping it up requires less time and your children will be more skilled at identifying what they can keep or toss. If you get a good start, you can step back in a while and let them manage on their own.

Many students find doing homework easier and much less time consuming after they have tidied their backpack. Once they get their work organized, they feel more confident. In addition, not wasting time looking for their work leaves them more time to study. I have been through this process many times with students and they all end up making the same delighted comment in the end:

“Feel how light my backpack is!”

 By Daniela Loose
Loose is a teacher and a writer. Find her on Twitter.

How letting go of anger has allowed me to be a better mom

I’ve been frustrated most of my life. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I am doing; irritation simply follows me. On the outside, I am engaging and good-humored, but beneath the surface is a pinched up shrew with the patience of a 2-year-old.

One of my many hidden talents is the ability to roll my eyes without splitting a nerve. It is a skill that requires equal amounts focus and fury, and one that I’m sorry to admit I have mastered.

Whether I am standing in line at the grocery store or sitting in the doctor’s office, my cuckoo clock eyes are perpetually in motion. For the most part, I keep the verbal anger to a minimum, which explains the pulsating vein on the side of my face and the reddish hue of my cheeks. But every so often I snap, causing a whirlwind of impetuous behavior.

We were living in Florida when I was eight months pregnant. It was mid-July and hotter than hell. I was on my way home from the gym when I saw an SUV in the rear view mirror speeding toward me. I assumed he would drive around since we were on a two-lane bridge, but instead he sped up and revved his engine directly behind my car.

I could feel the blood boiling in my hormonal face when I glanced up and saw him pounding his fists on the steering wheel. He was testing my patience, which was destined for failure, but I rejected his challenge and gestured for him to pass.

When he pulled alongside my car with a mouthful of contempt, I exploded. It was the only time I had ever unleashed that kind of fury on a total stranger, and I let him have it all. I was so angry that my hands were shaking. There were two of them, and two of me; one of which was still in the oven, yet I couldn’t let it go.

We continued the charade until the next light, which happened to be red. There was nowhere for me to hide and no one around to witness the insanity that was about to ensue. I was trapped, alone, and very much afraid.

I could hear them screaming at me from their windows as I eased my way toward the light, and watched in horror as their car shook to a stop. When the driver stepped out, he slammed his door shut and began stomping his way over in my direction; by now my heart was beating out of my chest and I could not catch my breath.

To this day, I honestly believe he might have killed me right there on the spot had his friend not pulled him away when the light turned green. I had allowed myself to become totally unhinged for the first time in my life, and it easily could have been my last. What a foolish thing to do, particularly for an expectant mother, and I am thankful my child wasn’t around to see it.

When I got home that day, I could not stop crying. I felt like the worst soon-to-be mother in the world and was too ashamed to tell anyone what had happened, so I didn’t — until now. The thing about losing control is that it makes you realize how swiftly it can materialize.

Looking back, it’s probably a good thing that it happened before my daughter was born. It allowed me to see the dynamics of anger and taught me how to stop myself from taking it one step further.

I have a strong-willed child. She is the spitting image of her temperamental mother, minus the elevation. When she was little, every request was an invitation to push my buttons, and she picked at them with everything she had. If I asked her to do something, she would puff out her tiny body and challenge me to a verbal joust. If I told her not to touch something, she would ease her way over to it with the grace of a swan and throw a finger on top of it while giving me a side-eye. She was relentless, and I was beginning to lose control.

We had just finished finger-painting in the kitchen one afternoon when I asked her to help me clean up. As expected, she dismissed my request by running to her room for cover, but this time, I followed behind. I wanted to set an example for future behavior, and I wasn’t taking no for an answer. We bickered back and forth until the conversation became heated and a familiar feeling began to build up inside of me. My hands were shaking — just as they were on that hot summer day — and I was afraid of what would happen if I stayed.

I knelt down on the floor with tears in my eyes and hugged my little girl. I told her to stay in her room and think about her behavior while I went into mine to do the same. Then I ran to my bedroom closet, closed the door, and sobbed my way back to sanity.

It’s hard being a parent at times. Children can push you to the ends of the earth and all you want to do is scream. You repeat yourself 10,000 times a day as if no one is listening, but they are… and they hear everything. It only takes a second to reach the point of no return, yet finding your way back can last a lifetime.

When I lost my temper that day on the road, intolerance rattled my foundation and awakened self-control. In one thick moment, I learned the importance of keeping my cool and counting to 10: a lesson that could have come at a much higher price and one that we all need to embrace.

Lisa Rene LeClair is a writer, humorist, social media junkie and mom. She blogs for your amusement at sassypiehole and she tweets @sassypiehole.

My son with autism is going to college. Cue the happy tears.

One of the great parental rites-of-passage is when your eldest child receives their first college acceptance letter. If it happens to be the school that he or she so wants to attend, then it’s a moment of genuine celebration, tinged with the bittersweet knowledge that the adult leave-taking is beginning.

But when, like my son Max, your child is autistic, and that first “you’re in” letter lands on the doormat… well, full disclosure, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. Because early on in Max’s odyssey along the autism spectrum I was categorically told that the hope of him ever having a so-called “normal life” — let alone eventually going off to college — was beyond the realm of possibility.

Ask any parent of a child with a disability and you will usually get an earful about the all-encompassing uncertainties that accompany having a son or daughter with “special needs” (to use that politically correct catch-all phrase). These parents are acutely aware of the fact that — in its brutal, happenstantial way — life can suddenly deal you some very bad cards. Only retrospectively — many years down this track — do you also begin to realize that how you, the parent, grapple with this determines so much of your child’s future.

I was a late arrival at that station marked parenthood. When Max showed up in the world I was a 37-year-old American writer based in London, married to an Irishwoman in the film business. Though there was a moment of panic in the delivery room when a midwife discovered that the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck, Max hit all his early developmental marks and seemed to be a cheerful, engaged baby with decidedly night owl tendencies.

But then, when he was three, his connection to the world around him gradually began to diminish. Our growing worries were magnified when the head of his kindergarten called us in to observe him sitting alone in a corner of the playroom, withdrawn from his peers, staring blankly into the void beyond the nearby window. A briskly clinical educational psychologist diagnosed him with a receptive language disorder, meaning he had trouble understanding and processing what was said to him. She mentioned a private school that — as she noted in her crisp, bloodless Anglo way — “specializes in these sort of things.”

On the recommendation of that cheerless diagnostician, Max spent two years at a posh, rather a useless school for children with language disorders in a leafy corner of South London. Not only did he make no progress during his time there, but the headmistress once dismissively told me: “Max’s prospects are simply limited. At best he will be happy within himself.”

After this conversation, I started frantically researching other educational possibilities. And then, out of nowhere: Disaster. Max developed a series of nervous tics. He had tremors that left him disoriented and confused. I brought him to a pediatrician who said Max had Attention Deficit Disorder and put him on a course of Ritalin.

Ten days later, while my wife was on a business trip, I walked into Max’s room to discover that while he was physically present, he wasn’t responding to any outside stimuli. When I called his name, when I took his face in my hands and begged him to answer me, he stared back at me with eyes as glassy as a lake in winter. He was a vacant shell.

Lifting him, I discovered that he had lost control of all bodily functions. I raced him into the bathroom, washed him down with the shower hose, then called the local children’s hospital. Minutes later I was negotiating rush hour traffic. Halfway to the hospital, Max was hit with a convulsion that lasted one long terrible minute. Seated next to him, in her child seat, his two-year-old sister Amelia stroked his head with her left hand, willing his seizure to stop.

When we reached the pediatric neurology ward, my son was hooked up to an EEG machine to measure his brain waves. When the EEG machine whirred to life — Max’s head now covered by twenty electrodes — the needles on the monitor went berserk. It was like a mad Jackson Pollock canvas mirroring the electrical activity in my son’s brain. The resident neurologist was on the scene moments later. His voice remained calm, level, as he told me: “Your son is in the throes of a very severe epileptic incident. I know it is frightening, but in most cases the child comes through this.”

In most cases. This qualification unnerved me. He sent us across town to a specialist he felt best equipped to handle this “incident.”  An hour later I was in the consulting rooms of another doctor. He walked in as I was holding Max down during another convulsion.

After studying him intently, the doctor crouched by my catatonic son and said: “So Max, how does it feel to have taken five years off your father’s life?”

Then, gripping my shoulder with his hand, the doctor said what I was longing to hear: “I think I can get him back.” That doctor became both my ally and friend. Especially as it took another three months and many pharmacological adjustments for Max to emerge from his walking coma. When Max could talk again, the doctor sent him one of England’s top experts on autism, who officially diagnosed Max as being mid-range on the autistic spectrum.

After that, the wife of a friend put me in touch with a fellow American in London who was the mother of two autistic boys. She introduced me to a controversial way to teach autistic children that were pioneered at UCLA by Norwegian psychologist Ivar Lovaas. Known as the Lovaas Method, it also goes by the name of Applied Behavioral Analysis, and is noteworthy for its brutal 40-four hours per week one-on-one therapy that reportedly reorders the autistic brain.

With my friend’s help, I set up a Lovaas school for Max at home. And thus began the process which saw him accepted, 14 years later, at Ringling College of Art and Design. It was a frequently arduous journey. The early months of the therapy saw Max howling his head off as the chief tutor began to chip away at his autism.

I had to fight to get Max into the one secondary school for autistic children in London — and then had to fight again when our local borough closed it down (nasty budgetary cuts). I had to fight to get him into one of the few state boarding schools in the United Kingdom for autistic children. But then it was Max who insisted — when a teacher suggested he consider vocational training — that he wanted to get the British equivalent of a high school diploma. And it was Max who said yes, three years later, when I asked him if he was ready for college.

When it came time to start the college admissions process I was a divorced man living back in the United States. It was Max who, without my help, wrote a remarkable essay entitled ‘My Life with Autism,” which accompanied all his applications. Ringling was his first choice — and Ringling was the first of four schools that said yes to him.

Three and a half years on, Max came to visit me in Manhattan for Thanksgiving. He grabbed a taxi in from JFK International Airport alone, checked himself into the hotel I arranged for him, walked alone to my home and went with me and his sister to four plays over the weekend (we’re all culture vultures).

He especially had many things to say about “A View from the Bridge” on Broadway, which he pronounced brilliant. He asked,  “Do you think Eddie Carbone knows he is writing his own destiny? That’s the Greek tragedy part of the play, right?” I thought back to that dismissive headmistress in London who told me that Max’s future would be, at best, limited. And I said to my son — all of whose extraordinary achievements are the tribute to his fierce desire to defeat the autism that so tyrannized him for years: “Writing your own destiny can also be a wondrous thing”.

Douglas Kennedy’s 12 novels include “The Big Picture,” “The Pursuit of Happiness,” “The Woman in the Fifth” and “The Moment.” His new novel is“The Blue Hour.” A native New Yorker, he now divides his time between Manhattan, Maine, and Paris.

10 lazy ways to intellectually stimulate your kids

Everyone says kids are like sponges. Because they’re germy and start to smell really bad unless you wash them well with hot water and soap. Also, because their little minds are growing and expanding at approximately twice the rate of the average American waistline, and that’s saying something. But before you get out the flashcards, and by “get out,” I mean “purchase for the first time,” why not see if one of these more lackadaisical approaches can serve equally well to stimulate your little one’s synaptic growth?

  1. Learn a new language. One good one is “slang from the 90’s.” Girl, that picture you drew is fly! Don’t hate on your sister, Madison. Learning that words have double meanings and that grammar is fluid can really enhance your child’s cognitive flexibility.
  2. Play tic tac toe. Yes, you can always win, but that’s the point. Always losing teaches your child humility, grace, and good sportsmanship — what?  How did you do that? Oh my God, now my four-year-old can beat me at tic tac toe. Before I had kids I was an intellectual powerhouse, I swear.
  3. Learn sign language together. Don’t worry, I’m sure you know some already. Like “Whatever” and “bye bye.” And “birdie.” Yes, I’m sure that’s “birdie.” What do you mean you Googled it and it’s “washing machine?” How depressing.
  4. Use math in real life. Yes, kids, math is super important. Like now, when I have to figure out how much money we can afford to spend on Mommy getting her hair done. It’s our monthly income minus our mortgage, minus our electric bills, minus the car repair bill, minus… you know what, let’s do science instead. Which brings us to…
  5. Baking soda and vinegar volcanos. No, I don’t know why. But I know they work because they can unclog your shower drain. There must be something you can talk about, with pressure, or gravity, or acid, I don’t know. Work with me.
  6. Create modern art. The key word is “modern.” There are no rules here, friend. Just do what you feel. Yes, two scribbles on a piece of paper is art, and it is stimulating your child’s brain like nobody’s business.
  7. Sculpt. Create a three-dimensional figure using only clay? What a wunderkind. No, dear, this thing here isn’t called “a cylinder made out of Play-Doh,” it’s called “pottery that allows your creativity to flourish without us even leaving the house, for the second day in a row.”
  8. Practice self-defense. Physical activity creates new connections in the brain and so does hand to hand combat. So stop telling on your brother for kicking the back of your seat, and go all Krav Maga on his butt. Here’s a YouTube tutorial you can watch on the iPad while I look at Pinterest on my computer.
  9. Guessing games. I’m thinking of an animal that starts with G and has a long neck. What do you mean, “turtle?” What are they teaching you in that Montessori school anyway?
  10. Geography. A cynic may just call this “Where did Mommy leave the car again?” but really it teaches map skills, geography, resilience, and grit. Especially when you’re walking around the parking lot for 25 minutes in the drizzle with a mother who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and you don’t even have a snack bag of Goldfish. Navy SEALS, here you come, son. Thank me later.

Samantha Rodman is the author of How to Talk to Your Kids About Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. Rodman is a licensed psychologist, founder of DrPsychMom.comand a happily married mother of three.

Valentine’s Day books for kids (and parents)

It’s almost time for kids to choose a box of valentines, address them to each classmate and deliver them to desktop mailboxes. Before the big day, though, grab one of these books and spend some heartfelt time reading together with your littlest loved ones.

Here Comes Valentine Cat, by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Claudia Rueda

The cat isn’t in the mood for the fun of Valentine’s Day. For one, Cat doesn’t have a friend to make a card for. Making matters worse, a new neighbor has moved in Dog. Soon, bones are flying over the fence and hitting Cat in the head. Can these two be friends? Throughout the story, a narrator converses with Cat and asks questions. Cat’s answers are sometimes revealed in signs he holds up, like a not-so-sweet valentine created by Cat for Dog: “Roses are Red/Violets are Blue/Who’s the Worst Neighbor?/I think it’s You!”

Cat’s facial expressions perfectly mimic those of a toddler’s and are captured within a pleasing soft-palette of ink and color pencil drawings. Wry humor and a twist ending make this book a charmer.

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I Love You Already! by Jory John, illustrated by Benji Davies

Duck really wants to spend the day with his neighbor, Bear. Bear, though, really wants to spend the day alone, lounging around in his robe, with a cup of tea. Can Duck pester his friend enough to get him to play with him? He gives it his best shot, offering all the ways Bear will like him more if he just goes for a walk with him. Bear tells him he likes him “already.” Says Duck: “I’m not taking no for an answer, Bear. We’re having fun, whether you want to or not.” Bear’s response: “Ugh.” Throughout the day, Duck keeps asking for reassurance that Bear likes him.

The fast-paced interplay between the relentless Duck and curmudgeon-like Bear translates to a lively and humorous story complemented by richly drawn illustrations that precisely represent each character’s personality. Kids will want to read this again and again, and will look forward to the pair’s next adventure.

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Mr. Goat’s Valentine, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Kevin Zimmer

Mr. Goat needs to buy a gift for Valentine’s Day — something special for his “first love.” That “something special,” though, turns out to be a little unusual. First stop for his gift: Miss Nanny Goat’s weed stall. He places his order: “Crabgrass, pigweeds, and ragweed in that nice, rusty can. They are for my first love. She’s fond of ragweed salad.”

Mr. Goat continues creating the perfect gift — perfect for a yucky-food-loving goat, that is — until the end when we get to see who his first love is. There’s just the right amount of eww factor in the gift ingredients to make kids laugh, and readers will be surprised to find out who the gift-recipient is. Along the way, bright and bold illustrations provide plenty of reasons to capture the attention of those who enjoy a sillier, less sappy take on Valentine’s Day.

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Ollie’s Valentine, by Olivier Dunrea

The adorable Ollie, known for his adventures with his fellow gosling friends, is on a search. It seems everyone except him has received a valentine: “Gertie gave it to me!” says Gossie, holding a silver foil heart. “BooBoo gave it to me!” says Gertie, clutching a red heart. And so on. But who will be Ollie’s valentine? A surprise mirror on the last page holds the answer.

The colorful foil hearts incorporated into the watercolor drawings add an enticing texture that kids will want to rub their fingers over. It’s all wrapped up in a sturdy board book format, making it a perfect gift for a little one.

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Love from The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle

Everyone’s favorite caterpillar is back in this gem of a book. Sized for little hands, this small book speaks directly to tykes, telling them why they are special. The first pages contain the words “You are …” and feature whimsical floating hearts, setting the stage for the rest of the tale. The next pages read “… so sweet” and show the caterpillar making its way through a strawberry. Next is “… the cherry on my cake,” followed by more sentiments. Parents will enjoy taking their time reading the very few but impactful words and soaking up the vibrant collaged artwork that sends a warm message.

Mia Geiger is a writer in the Philadelphia area. You can find her atmiageiger.com and @MiaGeiger.

What to do when your kid can’t fall asleep without you in the room

Q: My two girls, ages 3 and nearly 7, share a room but will not go to sleep unless each has a parent by her side until she passes out. Anything less, and it’s complete waterworks and screaming, with the little one forcing herself to throw up. How on earth do we break this awful habit? It’s been going on for about a year, and we have had no energy to fight it. We hate ending the days with them hysterically upset, so we’ve just given in to this ridiculous ritual.

A: You feel utterly alone in this struggle. And I get it. It sounds so exhausting. But I want to tell you that I receive daily calls and letters from sleepless parents who are in the same boat. So, try to take some comfort in the simple fact that you are not alone.

But we have some problems here, don’t we? To begin to understand how you came to this place, it is useful to understand why children prefer to sleep with you and will fight so hard to stay with you, night after night.

Almost every parent knows that when a baby is born, that baby wants skin-on-skin contact with a parent or caregiver 24 hours a day. In fact, the very survival of newborns depends on a caregiver strongly and physically bonding with the baby. Cuddling, strong eye contact, loving speech and skin-on-skin contact are a critical part of the maturation process for babies.

As a child grows and becomes more mature, more distance can be tolerated between this child and her caregiver. You will see that the toddler toddles away, and the 4-year-old will run down the block, and the 7-year-old will spend all day in school. Because they spend more time away from you, however, nighttimes can become especially fraught.

Children can really become needy for their parents’ attention at night. Why is this? At night, the work of the day is done and it is time to relax. What brings children the most relaxation? Being physically close to their parents. Even older children want to feel close to their attachments. At night is also when the worries begin for many children, when the room is dark and things look like scary monsters. Worrisome thoughts may enter their brain, and it is completely normal for children to be troubled by fears of death, losing their parents or some other terrible thing. Children can feel unprotected and scared, and these feelings compel them to come find their parents. (These are the children who are hopping out of bed constantly.)

I am guessing that your children showed normal signs of this nighttime worry and anxiety, and in order to make them feel better, you began to get into bed with them. The “crawl into bed with the kid” trick has an almost 100 percent success rate of sleep . . . for the child. She instantly feels safe and relaxed. But as for long-term solutions, getting into bed with the children has turned into a nightmare.

So, this has been going on for a year. I would love to give an easy solution that involves no crying for them, but I don’t see that happening. A solution will happen, but it will require a great deal of patient, gentle persistence, a good sense of humor and not rushing anything too much.

Here are some ideas:

Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld suggests “turning into the skid,” which here means that you can let the children know that you are going to help them sleep in their beds. Alone. Say that they might cry, be scared, worry and miss their parents terribly. Go ahead and expect all of those feelings. Welcome them. Tell the children that these feelings make total sense. This is “turning into the skid,” because rather than fighting or rationalizing these feelings away, we are making room for all of the feelings that will occur.

Keep the nighttime routine structured, gentle, loving and moving along. Don’t ask too many questions or give too many choices; that will just create more insecurity. Be sure to focus on the next meeting and tell them, “I will see you in my dreams” or “I will be in this room first thing in the morning!” And before you leave the room (if they are not yet freaking out completely), let them know you will be coming back to check on them in less than one minute. Show them the timer.

Now here is where it gets really rough. If you have a child who is throwing up because she is so upset, the amount of time you leave the room may be only 15 seconds. I know, this sounds ridiculous, but her young mind may be able to tolerate only small amounts of separation. And because your older child is also upset, just keep checking on them at the same intervals. Be quiet about it, loving and firm.

I don’t know how long this will go on.

The hope is that the children will relax when they realize you are keeping up your end of the bargain and returning for another kiss. The length of time between the visits will get longer. But because this has gone on for a year, it may take a while. Just be emotionally ready for how long and painful this will feel in the moment. But night after night, bit by bit, you will get your time and your shared adult bed back.

And no matter how bad the night before was, greet the children with smiles and hope in the morning. “We are doing it . . . you girls are really sleeping so well!” Yes, of course this is not how you feel, but someone has to be the beacon of hope. And that is you, the parent.

Whatever you do, do NOT:

•Lock the children in their rooms or keep the door shut, blocking them. This will increase their worry into a traumatic panic. It is not only unkind but will also hurt any progress you have made.

•Punish the children for crying. You created this dynamic with them; it is your responsibility to help them.

•Bribe them to stay in bed. You will be broke in a month, and you will still be sleeping with them.

•Beat yourself up if you give up and get into bed with them. You are human. Just begin again the next day.

•Lose hope. Beyond reclaiming your marriage and sleep, you are helping your children to feel and accept your boundaries. This is how resilience is built in children. It won’t be pretty, but better now than later.

And again, you know your children best, so take my ideas and make them work for you.