The Promise of Maybes

The Promise of Maybes

By Audrey Hines McGill


We walk into my two boys’ new school and check out their new classrooms. We meet their new teachers; I say hello, and then introduce the boys. I explain how we’ve recently moved cross country for my husband’s new job. But what I don’t tell these new teachers is that I’m secretly hoping for a new start, a reprieve from judging eyes and ignorant staring that made up much of my previous interactions with teachers and other parents at my children’s prior school. I wish my boys have more play dates and birthday party invitations. I dream of neighborhood friends and for my children to feel like they belong.

At this very moment, I also secretly hope my children’s telltale eye rolling tics don’t happen as we make our introductions. Just for a little while, I hope for a break from the explanations and the reciting of diagnoses.  For just a few minutes, I want my children to safely blend into the sea of students soon about to enter the classroom.

Since it is the dreaded beginning of the school year, it is time to inform yet countless more people of both of my children’s special circumstances. It is time to discuss 504 plans, IEPs, and special accommodations for their needs in the classroom. They have Tourette syndrome I will say. But how do I describe how Tourette syndrome affects them daily, while trying to sound as nonchalant as possible?  I can tell them my standard, “It’s no big deal. You probably won’t even notice the tics” intended to alleviate some of their fears as well as my own.

I can say they have verbal tics, otherwise known as a constant stream of strange noises, snorts, and grunting.

I can say their eyes roll around making it difficult to read or keep their place. I can say that my youngest son, only 7, struggles with Copralalia, which is the unwanted urge to say socially inappropriate words and phrases.

But I cannot say that my 7-year-old is so tormented by his Coprolalia that despite my constant reassuring and comforting, he is convinced he is a bad person.

I cannot say that on my darkest days, I am angry at the world, angry at God, and angry at the genetics that my children could not escape.

I cannot say that I constantly become overwhelmed with the inner struggle of wanting to hide my children and keep them safe from the world’s glare or let them go and trust that they will be okay as they set off bravely on their own.

What I cannot say is that I am terrified that suddenly one day the tics will overtake my children’s ability to find happiness and joy in their life.

What I am not allowed to say is that sometimes my children’s tics annoy me, but I am asking that as their teachers, to please disregard the noises and movements in the classroom.

What I really cannot say is that I am tired of the explanations, the quizzical looks, and even the rude stares my children receive as we try and assimilate into any social gathering.

What I know I cannot say is that sometimes I feel extremely selfish and wish that this burden wasn’t mine and my children’s to bear.  I wish for a reality much different than the reality we’ve been handed.

What I most certainly cannot say is the heartache of having children who by the very definition of Tourette syndrome, are considered Neurologically Impaired, sometimes makes me resentful. And now I am yearning for those carefree days before the words Tourette syndrome became a part of our lives and my daily fear for their future threatens to overtake my joy of living in the moment.

And so I reassure myself with maybes. Maybe everything will be different here. Maybe my children will find a place where they feel like they belong. Maybe I will. Maybe there will be a permanent vacation from the pity filled eyes. Maybe so many friendships will be made we will have to pick and choose playdates. Maybe my boys will be regarded for their beautiful big blue eyes and their senses of humor. Maybe their only noticeable characteristics will be their kindness toward others and their generous personalities. Maybe here they can just be little boys. Maybe here they can be recognized for more than their affliction’s definition. Maybe they can just love being 9 and 7.  Maybe here their stream of internal torment can absorb me instead.

So I smile big and brave and kiss them each goodbye as I tell them that I love them and that they will have a great day. I watch as they walk through their new classroom doors as the promise of maybes swells so big inside of my heart that I can barely breathe.

Audrey Hines McGill is a contributing writer and Northwest native living in Seattle, Washington. She is writing her way through life one paragraph and one cup of coffee at a time.



Opinion: No Services

Opinion: No Services

portrait of a sad little boy in red soccer jersey seated on a bench and holding a ball

By Jenna Bagnini

What do you do when your child isn’t disabled enough to qualify for services, but isn’t typical either?

My eleven-year-old son can’t brush his own teeth. He chews on the brush and he doesn’t know how to spit, no matter how many times I’ve tried to show him. So at some point I gave up, took the toothbrush from his hand, and started brushing his teeth for him every day. He walks around with his shoes untied all day, not because he can’t tie them, but because it’s hard for him and he doesn’t want to expend the effort. He can’t ride a bike. He refuses to go to the movies, because it’s too loud and the sensory piece is overwhelming. He can’t prepare himself a sandwich. He can swim, but he won’t put his head in the water. Yet this same child doesn’t have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or even a 504 plan to arrange some special help during the day. Despite his high-functioning autism and ADHD, he’s “not disabled enough” to need services at school.

My son used to have an IEP. He got speech and OT and a social skills group. We moved at the start of this school year, and he was immediately declassified. The new district decided that he no longer needed the assistance. And he is a bright child. He gets good grades. But his behavior is not that of a typical eleven-year-old boy. I believe, even though he is getting some counseling as a building-level service, that his behavior at home is suffering because he is not getting the help he needs at school

Though my son has good grades, if you look in his backpack you will see that it’s a complete disaster. He has an accordion folder for all his subjects, but he just shoves things in and then can’t find them. When I need to send something to school with him to hand to a teacher, I’m pretty sure it isn’t ever going to make its way to the intended destination. And he has a very hard time keeping track of his homework. It’s fortunate for him that he has an incredible memory so he does very well on tests without needing to study for them, because he is constantly forgetting when they are scheduled.

We are restarting the process of evaluating my son and I plan on bringing the paperwork from the neuropsychologist to the school to try again for school-based services. Unfortunately, we are unable to afford private OT, so I am hoping that the school will read over the neuropsych’s report carefully and make a decision that is in the best interest of my child. But I am not entirely optimistic, because he simply doesn’t look “disabled enough” to qualify.

The problem with having a child like mine is that he holds it together so well at school that they don’t see the concerning behaviors (meltdowns, crying fits, refusal to leave the house), and we don’t benefit from any of the interventions that other kids with autism could get. I am constantly hearing that “he is able to access the curriculum.” Yes, he is, but that should not be the end of the story. Grades do not make the whole child. He needs to have social skills and he needs to stop the behaviors, such as picking his nose, that make him distasteful to the other kids. I hear stories from him about being picked on and teased, and I’m afraid it will only get worse as he gets older.

I think it behooves the school to redefine what “able to function in the classroom” means. Are we really doing the best for our children without testing their social skills as well as their ability to regurgitate the facts. If our ultimate goal is to raise productive adults, we have to do better for our fringe kids.

Jenna Bagnini is a divorced mom of three boys (one with special needs), feminist, mental health advocate, yogi, and dancer.





Suspended in Social Mobility

Suspended in Social Mobility

By Amanda Rose Adams


For the past seven years, my kids have attended our neighborhood elementary school. The school was recently classified as a Title One institution. According to the US Department of Education, “Schools in which children from low-income families make up at least 40 percent of enrollment are eligible to use Title I funds for schoolwide programs that serve all children in the school.”

For many years well over 50% of our school’s students have been eligible for free or reduced lunch, but my children are not part of that 50%+ percent. At our elementary school, we’ve been the minority of families who are decidedly and comfortably middle class.

My daughter only has nine more school days before she leaves our Title One school to join her brother in middle school next fall. Our middle school has the lowest percentage of at-risk need funding of any school in our district, less than 2%. We are going from a school where most of the school directory addresses are in one of the biggest trailer parks in our state to a school where we’ve seen kids picked up in Lamborghinis and limousines.

According to the principal at the middle school, close to one hundred percent of the students have smart phones. I can assure you it’s not fully one hundred percent because my son does not have a cell phone of any sort, smart or not. We simply cannot afford to arm a sixth grader with a telephone for his convenience or ours. Once again we are in the minority, still middle class but closer to the margins than many families at this school.

My husband and I look back over our children’s tenure at the lower income school with mixed feelings. We are glad we didn’t try to “choice” out of our neighborhood school because we wanted our kids to understand that not everyone has the same advantages and possessions. We’re glad that they had so many English-learning classmates. We are glad that we had the school’s social worker translate birthday party invitations to be inclusive. Diversity is one of the values the school celebrates.

We did “choice” our son out of the middle school he would have been bussed to because we wanted him to have a chance to make new friends. He was never athletic enough to blend in with his peers in elementary school and a new crowd seemed the right choice for him. Where we live if a family wants to opt out of their default school, they must submit a request in writing by the January before the next school year begins, and even then a change of school is not guaranteed. The middle school he’s at now was actually third on our list of three alternatives. We knew little about it before he was assigned, but it’s the one the school district chose for us.

In elementary school, our kids were getting easy As for years. They’ve been coasting, which we learned this year when our sixth grade son was buried in homework and struggled to legitimately earn solid Bs. We’ve not only seen him work harder, we’ve seen his writing and math skills improve dramatically. At his old school we never pushed him to join the gifted and talented program because we knew he wouldn’t push himself. In this new school, whether it’s his age, his teachers, or his peers, he’s found his drive.

We expect our daughter to really take off in middle school and are hoping to see her communication skills blossom like her brother’s have. We are so happy with the academic rigor middle school that we wonder if we did wrongly by our kids by not trying to “choice” them into a more challenging school sooner.

For the past several years we were stubbornly loyal to our neighborhood elementary school, volunteering regularly and donating supplies and hosting classroom parties. We didn’t want to be those people who thought their kids were too good to go to school with the poor kids. This was especially important to me because I actually lived in a trailer park from kindergarten until sixth grade. My siblings and I were the kids who got free and reduced lunch. My family ate government cheese and drank canned pineapple juice from the USDA Commodities program. It seemed like a betrayal of my family of origin and an enormous hypocrisy of self to segregate my own children from other kids just because the other kids lacked money. What I didn’t understand until later is how hard the teachers have to work to make up for other gaps that many kids without money also possess, like never attending preschool or not having books at home and often not having a parent at home.

By doing right by our neighbors and our values, I do sometimes wonder if we did right by kids? Our son seems to be catching up quickly, and I expect no different from our daughter. If we created a gap by indulging our values of equality and fairness ahead of our value of education, it is our responsibility and our great privilege to close it with the myriad of resources at our disposal. One of those privileges is sending our kids to a middle school that challenges them. It’s now up to our kids to reach their full potential and for us to support that. I wonder about our choices, but I don’t regret them. In raising children, I would far rather error on the side of compassion over competition because that’s the lesson I most want them to take into the future.

Amanda Rose Adams is contributing blogger for Brain, Child, the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Motherlode Blog, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at


Photo: gettyimages

The Gap Year

The Gap Year

BT 15 Gap Year ArtSam Rich has all good things to say about the ten months he spent living and studying in Patagonia—even about the time he was chased by a pack of Chilean street dogs.

Sponsored by Rotary International, which places some 8,000 students in similar situations worldwide every year, Rich, now 20, took a year off after he graduated high school, deferring his acceptance at a competitive Massachusetts university.

“My junior year in high school, I began to feel like I was being forced into this system—graduate high school, go to college, get a job,” Rich recalls. “And I was thinking, ‘When am I going to get to travel and get outside of this bubble they call the United States?'”

He got his wish, living with a family and attending school in a remote region of Patagonia, which is where he met up with the dog pack during a pre-dawn run, as one and then another stray joined in, nipping at his heels as he was trying to make his way over unfamiliar streets.

Rich not only survived the encounter, he went on to write an essay about it, which he used midyear to apply from abroad to a fresh round of colleges. Whether the essay, or his gap year in general, helped get him into Tulane University, where he’s now a sophomore, Rich can’t say. But he feels certain his experience changed him in fundamental ways.

“Before my gap year, I would not have applied to a school so far away from home,” says Rich, who grew up near Boston. “It’s easier now for me to connect with people. Before, I really stuck to what I thought was ‘my group.’ Now I’ll talk to anyone.”

That kind of maturity and perspective is exactly what’s sought by an increasing number of U.S. high school graduates—supported by their sometimes more-reluctant parents—who choose to take time off before or during college. Nobody keeps definitive numbers, but colleges, universities, high school guidance counselors, and college admissions reps all report anecdotally that interest in gap years among American students is sharply on the rise.

Choices abound and are growing more plentiful every day, from private organizations that plan every moment of your child’s experience (and charge you for it accordingly), through middle-tier options that place young adults in home-stay or au pair situations abroad, to U.S.-based service organizations like AmeriCorps that pay participants a small stipend and try to find them affordable housing options during a year of service. Some young adults go completely independent and fashion a do-it-yourself gap that may include work, an internship, an apprenticeship, service, travel, or all of the above.

Whatever route a gapper chooses, there are challenges. Gap year programs can be expensive, straining the bank accounts of parents who had counted on four, not five, years of young adult dependency. Students who apply or reapply to college during their gap year find that tracking deadlines and filling out the Common App, FAFSA, and other required documents can be more difficult from an Internet café with spotty service thousands of miles from home. All gap students must reapply for financial aid, and not all colleges and universities will offer deferring students the same merit aid package from year to year. Some don’t allow gappers to defer at all; they must reapply for the following academic year.

Navigating those hurdles is simply part of what makes a gap year so valuable for students, proponents say.

“We love the notion of students taking control of their lives and navigating adult-like situations,” says Charles Nolan, vice president and dean of admission at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., a small, elite college that competes with MIT, Harvard, and Stanford for students. “We believe that any student who takes a year off to do something different, rather than just follow the pack, comes to college with a different perspective on their education.”

Why Gap? Let Us Count The Ways

The American Gap Association (yes, there is such a thing—it’s an accreditation, standards-setting, and advocacy organization) defines a gap year this way:

“A gap year is a structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, challenge comfort zones, and experiment with possible careers. Typically these are achieved by a combination of traveling, volunteering, interning, or working. A gap year experience can last from two months up to two years and is taken between high school graduation and the junior year of their higher degree.”

Others are less exacting in their definitions. No less august an institution than Harvard College, which maintains a web page extolling the virtues of a gap year, defines it more loosely as “one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way.”

Either way, proponents from Harvard on down say students who take a year off from their studies are more mature, better focused, more curious, better community members with a more refined idea of what they’d like to study and how they plan to contribute to the world.

Olin College has an unusually proactive attitude towards gap years. The school guarantees that any student put on its wait list will eventually gain admission—though that often means waiting a year. A surprising number of students take Olin up on the offer every acceptance cycle, even though the school offers no guidance as to what students should do with their unexpected time off.

“Part of the creative process is letting them figure out what they want to do,” says Nolan, who says students in the most recent incoming class used their gap year to work in Korea, travel with an aid group, write a rough draft of a novel, work in TV production, and mentor girls in STEM education, among other pursuits.

Whatever their choice, students come to campus “a year older, a year wiser and ready to work,” Nolan says. “Age 18, 19 and 20 is a critical developmental time for young adults. That year can make a world of difference in how students approach their studies.”

There is a small but growing body of research that backs up Nolan’s perceptions, according to Ethan Knight, founder and executive director of the American Gap Association.

A gapper himself (Knight took time between his freshman and sophomore years of college to travel in India, Nepal, and Tibet) who later worked as a gap year consultant, Knight started the AGA in part to collaborate on gap year research and serve as a resource for university admissions personnel and educational counselors.

On its website, the AGA quotes studies that show:

  • * A majority of students report a gap year had an impact on their course of studies (either confirming their initial interest or setting them on a new course)
  • * Students return to school with higher levels of motivation, which translate into a measurable boost in performance during their first semesters at college, and
  • * Later on in life, students who had taken a gap year overwhelmingly report being satisfied with their jobs.

The AGA itself collaborated on a study with Bob Clagett, the former head of admissions at Middlebury College, that found that students who took a gap year performed better during their first year of college than they were expected to do without the time off. Clagett developed a methodology to track gap students’ actual GPA performance against an academic rating that looks at everything from high school grades, national test scores, and teacher recommendations to the intensity of an applicant’s essay to predict how they would perform if they’d entered college directly from high school. In almost all instances, Clagett found gappers outperformed their predicted rating. Even better, that boost lasted for all four years of college.

The AGA’s Knight firmly believes gap year students excel in college because they’ve had time to think about their priorities, a precious commodity in modern American life. “We spend a majority of our lives chasing a definition of success without taking time to figure out ‘What’s my individual definition of success?'” says Knight. “A gap year lets you explore your definition of success. If you have a particular passion for music or engineering, you want to work or get an internship or explore a possible career, this is that moment.”

Students exploring the possibility of a gap year approach it from many different vantage points. Within the industry, Knight says, counselors, gap year program directors, admissions directors, and others connected to the industry informally categorized students into five general groups:

“Meaning seekers” typically have high SAT scores, decent or midrange GPAs, and are looking for context for the learning they’ve been exposed to. Knight says a majority of gap year students fits into this first category.

“Overachievers” not surprisingly, have high SATs, high GPAs, and have been gunning for the Ivy Leagues or similarly competitive schools for much of their educational lives. Typically, these students are burned-out from their high-pressure high school experience and are looking for a break before beginning an equally rigorous secondary education.

If he were the kind of guy to categorize himself, Kenzie might say he’s a meaning seeker/pragmatist with a bit of overachieving disengagedness thrown in for good measure.

“Pragmatists” are very much aware of how much college costs and typically don’t want to commit to four years of tuition without a better sense of their higher education goals. These students often use a gap year to intern, apprentice, or work at an entry-level job as an entry point to potential career decisions that will be made in college.

“Strugglers” are students who might not have found academic success in high school, sometimes due to a learning disability or learning difference. A gap year can give such students a needed boost in perspective, self-awareness, and self-confidence as they participate in non-traditional learning activities and are able to experience success, often for the first time.

Finally, “The disengaged,” a small sliver of gappers, are typically students who feel no burning desire to continue on immediately to college. This sub-group uses a gap year to refine their focus and—their parents hope, anyway—gain some fire-in-the-belly for their next moves in life.

What Colleges Think of Gap Years

A study conducted by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, co-authors of 2009’s The Complete Guide to the Gap Year: The Best Things to Do Between High School and College, found that the top two reasons cited by high school students taking a gap year were a desire to find out more about themselves (“meaning seekers”) and burnout from the competitive pressures of high school (“overachievers”).

It’s not a coincidence that some of the most gap-friendly universities in the United States—including Princeton, Tufts, Elon, and the University of North Carolina—are among the most elite. After all, they have the highest rate of accepting overachievers who are burned out by the process of getting into college in the first place.

In a heartfelt essay on its gap year web page, Harvard College laments the cradle-to-college obsession of getting into the right college, which it says can produce “some students [who] are clearly distressed, engaging in binge drinking and other self-destructive behaviors. It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the ‘prizes,’ stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it.”

If he were the kind of guy to categorize himself, Kenzie Schoenthaler might say he’s a meaning seeker/pragmatist with a bit of overachieving disengagedness thrown in for good measure. All he knows is that, midway through his junior year at a large, well-ranked public high school in Massachusetts, he just wasn’t feeling the love as his fellow students threw themselves into the college-search process.

“Near the end of sophomore year, I was getting a tiny bit burned out, and it crossed my mind that the possibility existed that I might not have to go straight to college,” Schoenthaler recalls. “Once junior year hit, and I didn’t know which college I wanted to go to, I just found myself thinking, ‘This is the only time I’m going to be able to bike across the United States. Now when I’m eighteen or later when I’m sixty-five.'”

None of this was lost on his mom, Robin Schoenthaler, who had long been concerned about how boys in general, and her two sons in particular, were faring in a school system being pushed, on both state and national levels, to emphasize testing, more testing, and a general interest in having children color within the lines. “From about third or fourth grade on, I was very distressed at what I consider the schools’ absolutely relentless demand on boys,” she relates. “Neurological science is conclusive that many of these demands are not developmentally appropriate.”

What’s more, Schoenthaler was a gapper herself who took several years before she found her way onto a college track that eventually lead to an M.D. And then she had the honor of serving for many years on the admissions committee for the Harvard Medical School. “Harvard had a completely generous deferment policy for people who wanted to take a gap year after acceptance,” Schoenthaler says. “Their reasoning was, everybody wins. Either a student comes back a year later more mature, dedicated and ready to work. Or they don’t, and that’s great, too, be- cause medical school isn’t for everyone.”

So when she saw her son Kenzie’s growing disinterest in the college-application process, she floated the idea of a gap year, which he eagerly took up. By his estimation, he couldn’t be happier with his do-it-yourself plan. He has a part-time job at the afterschool program he’d attended as a child, which he loves; and another part-time job at a national grocery chain that’s teaching him about second shifts, corporate values, and punching the clock alongside people of all ages and ethnicities. He earned an EMT certification this past spring and is planning on earning a second Wilderness EMT certification after taking a class this spring in San Francisco—to which he plans to bike 3,000 miles across the United States.

Like many gap parents, Dr. Schoenthaler was worried about whether the school at which Kenzie was accepted, Lesley University, would let him defer, whether his merit aid would transfer from year to year, and what his reentry into academic life would be like after a year out of the trenches.

As it turns out, American colleges and universities are all over the map in terms of awareness of, and support for, gap years, according to AGA’s Knight. “Tier 1 and Tier 2 schools tend to be extremely excited about gap years; some allow you to put right on your application that you’re taking a gap year,” Knight says.

Tufts University made news last March by going one step further—the school announced a program, to debut in fall of 2015, that helps some would-be gap year students pay for airfare, lodging, and other costs, provided they are enrolled in a structured full-year program of national or international service. Princeton and the University of North Carolina offer similar programs.

But they’re among the minority—for now anyway, says Knight. “Tier 3 schools, the larger schools, the state schools…lots of times they don’t have the staffing to accommodate some- thing different, so you wind up having to reapply.”

Lesley University didn’t offer any information on gap years or deferrals on its website or in its admissions materials, which meant Schoenthaler, with a little coaching from his mom, had to take matters into his own hands. After a face-to-face meeting with the admissions office, some paperwork, and a few phone calls, Kenzie’s deferral was approved and his merit money earmarked for next year. “It was a maximum of three days of work, and I gained 365 days,” he says. “So overall on a time- benefit scale, that ratio seems pretty good to me.”

Parents Worry

Deferrals aren’t the only thing that keeps parents up at night. No. 1 among parental concerns, admissions officers and gap year experts concede, is the worry that their child will never go to or return to college.

While statistics show that’s only rarely the case—research by authors Haigler and Rae found that 90 percent of gap year students return to college within a year—that doesn’t keep parents from worrying.

“Just coming back to the United States after seeing how needy other parts of the world are and then joining the typical American college experience, it’s a lot to absorb at once.”

After hearing tales of local gap kids who wound up working in entry-level retail jobs rather than heading to college, Dr. Schoenthaler told her son emphatically that his plan was to last for one year and one year only. “I’ve made it 100% clear that he’s going to school in September. Getting that degree is the end goal.”

Kenzie says he’s received that message, loud and clear. “This is a pretty awesome life—I’m fairly independent, making money—but people warned me not to let it get too awesome or I’ll wind up just staying home and living in my mom’s basement. A gap year is great, but you can’t let it become gap years.”

“Alexandra” is a Connecticut mother who asked that her name be changed to protect her family’s privacy during a time of delicate negotiations with her daughter, a high school senior graduating this June, who is lobbying to take a year off before college. That proposal that fills Alexandra with apprehension, especially coming at the end of what has been a long college-application process. “To me, a gap year means never going back to school,” she says, conceding that her concerns might stem from her own upbringing. “I was bred on the predictable, expected steps: high school, college, then you work your butt off in a field that you care about.”

She worries that a gap year signals a lack of motivation on her daughter’s part, and wonders if she has the maturity to organize a productive year off—a particular concern since her daughter has not—yet, anyway—articulated any clear plans. “What if she never winds up going to college? What if she lives at home for the next ten years? And, most important, how can we finance a five-year plan?”

(See “Who Gets To Gap?” for details on how some parents pay for that extra year.)

Parents tend to focus their worries on the “before” and “after” parts of the experience, but every now and again, the gap year itself goes seriously wrong. Promised internships or apprentice opportunities disappear or disappoint; the gapper goes adrift and never enrolls or returns to college; or, in the case of one young woman we’ll call “Aubrey,” an immersion year abroad starts out badly and gets worse.

Aubrey enrolled in a well-known and well-vetted study-abroad program with high hopes and eyes wide open. At the time, she was fine with not getting her first or second or even third choice of country; in retrospect, she now thinks some of her difficulties might be endemic to the culture of her host country, a former communist state.

Her first host family had a mother who was cold and monosyllabic and a father who, she came to realize, was an alcoholic. The second couple she was placed with was kind, but they had no children and knew no teenagers in town, and their largely unheated home was a 90-minute bus ride away from the school Aubrey was expected to attend every day. When she made it there, the schoolteachers, rather than engaging or encouraging her, flatly ignored her. When she asked her local program director to be placed with a family in town that had teenagers—and had already agreed to host her—she was told she was “lazy and complaining” and that she couldn’t move. Finally, overcome by loneliness and disappointment, Aubrey went AWOL—with her parents’ distant blessing—striking out for the airport without permission but with the help of other exchange students in the area who knew of and understood her predicament.

Back stateside, Aubrey’s mother was equal parts proud of her daughter for surviving in a negative situation for so long, heartbroken she hadn’t had a better experience, and frustrated that her stateside liaison for the international program seemed to have little sway over the situation on the ground overseas.

“The moral of this story is negative things can happen on these trips. My daughter wasn’t physically harmed, but she is heading home five months early with a lot of mending and healing in her immediate future,” Aubrey’s mother says. If she could tell other gap parents one thing, she says, it’s to be mindful that you and your child are at the mercy of an organization that may not always function as promised. “These systems are only as productive as the people in them.”

Welcome Back

Whether their landing is bumpy like Aubrey’s or smoother, at some point gap year students need to reintegrate themselves back into academic life, which can be a challenge. Kenzie and his mom both are mindful that his reentry may be ticklish.

“You’ve matured a year, you’re a year more experienced, and you may have had some very out-of-the-box experiences,” Dr. Schoenthaler says. “Kenzie hangs out with firemen; one of his co-workers used to be a Hell’s Angel. He’s having non-college, non-middle-class experiences, so he may feel some lack of identifying with some of the other students” when he enrolls in college next fall.

Erin Jensen, a domestic and international admissions counselor at PSU in Portland, OR, has become something of a specialist in gap year transitions. PSU awards college credit to students who participate in certain programs offered by Carpe Diem, a Portland-based travel-abroad program; upon completion of their gap year program, students then transfer those PSU credits to whatever college they plan to attend.

In helping students ensure that their credits transfer properly, Jensen discovered that gappers transitioning to college faced other hurdles as well. In her experience, it’s not common for gap year students, particularly those who have been on yearlong international experiences, to develop a kind of “reverse culture shock,” she says, with their maturity level and global outlook out of sync with incoming freshmen arriving straight from high school. “Just coming back to the United States after seeing how needy other parts of the world are and then joining the typical American college experience, it’s a lot to absorb at once,” she says.

While some schools, including PSU, allow gap year students to apply for sophomore housing, most don’t do any more to help ease re-entry into an academic setting. Jensen has heard that Whitman College hosts a luncheon for gap year students at the beginning of the year to allow them to bond and share experiences. If more schools did that—or offered gappers the opportunity of rooming with other students returning from travel—that could ease the transition, Jensen suggests.

For his part, Sam Rich says he did feel ahead of his peers when he arrived on campus as a college freshman. “I definitely felt like the dad at first. Everyone seemed overly excited and a little immature, and here I was coming from living in a foreign country for a year.” By intention, he chose a roommate who had spent a few months in Bolivia, “just because he’d had experience in a different culture.” As the term progressed and the freshmen settled down, Rich says, his feeling of differentness gradually faded.

And then there’s Aubrey, home early and dealing with a double set of re-entry issues. Not only must she reintegrate into academic life come fall, she first must figure out how best to fill five unexpected months.

When we spoke by telephone, she had to hang up early because she was due at a job interview for an office assistant position and was feeling hopeful something would materialize. As for the public university she’s accepted at in the fall, likewise she feels optimistic things will work out okay.

Which leaves her only with the challenge of processing her feelings about her truncated year abroad.

When asked how she was feeling so soon after returning home, Aubrey paused for a moment and then said the message she’d sent to friends as she was leaving her host country still best summed up her emotions: “Sometimes in life we must expect the unexpected. Though my exchange did not work out as I hoped it would, I continue to have no regrets. Living [abroad] for the past five months has taught me about myself, the world, how to deal with others and how to accept the fact that sometimes situations are simply not fair.”

Hard-learned lessons, to be sure, but ones that will likely last a lifetime—which, gap year proponents would say, is really the goal in the end.

Tracy Mayor is a long-time Brain,Child contributor. Her essays and longform journalism have also appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Writer’s Digest, Boston Magazine, Child, Self, and online on Salon, The Rumpus and the New York TimesMotherlode blog. She is the author of the parenting humor book Mommy Prayers (Hyperion, 2010) and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize.

Illustration by Rick Brown

The Diverse School Dilemma: A Book Review

The Diverse School Dilemma: A Book Review

By Nancy Poon Lue

Diverse Schools ArtFamily’s education decisions start long before college visits. That is the message at the heart of The Diverse School Dilemma by Michael Petrilli, an easy-to-read personal narrative of the author’s search for the right school for his children. It echoes many of the key questions I am often asked when people learn that I attended inner city public schools prior to matriculating at Harvard College.

Petrilli, president of a DC education reform think tank and a former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, succinctly dissects the questions raised by families who want to look beyond pure academic statistics and outcomes to consider the broader picture of a compelling school experience. For the author, and the families he profiled in this book, learning side-by-side with peers from different socioeconomic and racial background was a critical element. As Petrilli puts it, “Is selecting a diverse public school a responsible choice or an unreasonable risk?”

In just 119 pages, Petrilli blends research data, facts about school choices, and the anecdotal voice of parents who have gone through this process to answer this question. He opens up his family’s decision-making process as they evaluated their neighborhood schools, local charter schools (tuition free publicly funded institutions which generally operate independently), “private public schools” (public schools that, based on geographic boundaries, are homogenous), as well as private schools.   He lays out the factors, including school safety, curriculum, teacher quality, level of parental engagement, facilities, and class size, which are typically considered in addition to traditional quantitative measures such as test scores. As Petrilli aptly points out, while test scores provide an important snapshot of student achievement, they can also be deceptive if considered by themselves since they don’t reveal a school’s impact on its students’ year-over-year academic gains as well as knowledge attainment on non-core subjects.

By clearly enumerating the benefits and risks in each of these elements as they relate to diverse schools The Diverse Schools Dilemma gives parents much needed insights into how to weigh these factors based on each family’s risk tolerance and preferences. One family Petrilli interviewed decided that the social benefits of attending a diverse school outweighed the disadvantages of a less rigorous math curriculum and a lack of an arts program, both of which could be remedied for them through supplementary tutoring and afterschool activities (made affordable by not having to pay private school tuition). Of course not every family will have the same set of options (even the author admits that his first choice for his eldest son was a private school that was not affordable) and not every family will consider all of these same factors, but Petrilli lays out the foundation from which most families should begin their evaluation process.

Reading The Diverse School Dilemma was like having a thoughtful conversation with another parent. I appreciated the summary of research facts and background, but I most enjoyed Petrilli’s candid portrayal of how his family navigated this tricky process where there is often never a perfect solution. As most parents are trying to figure out what will be best for their children in the long run, I would have loved it if Petrilli had included interviews and any data points on alumni of the different schools types he profiled so that parents can have some perspective on the possible long-term impact of such a difficult decision.

As an alumna of diverse inner city public schools, the benefits as well as disadvantages of my early education followed me well into college, graduate school, and my professional life. So for me the section entitled “Why Peers Matter,” which focused on the influence peers have on a child’s vocabulary development and learning style starting at a young age, resonated strongly. Petrilli also offers practical tips for parents wrestling with school decisions, such as attending a PTA meeting and doing school visits outside of formal scheduled tour hours, in order to assess a school’s fit for your family.

Nancy Poon Lue is the General Manager of the EdTech Innovation Lab at GSVlabs. She was formerly a Senior Advisor and head of strategic planning at the U.S. Department of Education.  

One Good Year: A Look at Short-Term Homeschooling

One Good Year: A Look at Short-Term Homeschooling

By Laura Brodie

Girl writingMy ten-year-old daughter, Julia, was never a good fit in the public schools. Her teachers described Julia as a “very creative child,” with strong emotions, obsessive interests, and little patience for group activities and social norms. In the classroom, she sat with a book perched on her knees, sneaking dragon stories under her desk and missing the teacher’s instructions. On the playground, she avoided the girls’ cliques and boys’ noisy games, and sat alone in the shade digging for fossils. Every day she came home with another large rock.

By third grade, Julia was complaining of being burned out on her elementary school routine. The mixture of boredom and anxiety, weekly tests, increasing homework, rote memorization for standardized exams—all had left her knee-deep in a puddle of misery, and I, as a parent, shared in that swamp. Nevertheless, I encouraged her to tough it out. Most children had their own classroom complaints, and our elementary school, with its small-town community, seventeen-to-one student-teacher ratio, acres of green fields, and generally caring and intelligent teachers, was, by national standards, idyllic.

But as the year went by and the complaints increased, I sympathized more and more with Julia’s plight, partly because of my own memories of public school drudgery, and partly because, as a professor of English, I understand the need for sabbaticals. If adults benefit from intellectual rejuvenation, then why not children? Why shouldn’t a child have time off to pursue her own research and writing?

The breaking point came during Julia’s fourth grade year, when I lost her for an hour. She had been sitting at home on our living room carpet, pressing tiny Legos into colorful dragon bodies, and so I was surprised to get no reply when I called her name from the kitchen. For the next half hour I searched the house, the yard, the shaded recesses of our backyard creek. I scanned the surrounding pastures for the silhouette of a wandering child, then telephoned our neighbors. They had not seen Julia. They would call if she dropped by.

Assuring myself that a fourth-grader was old enough to wander alone, I stretched out on my bed and tried to concentrate on a novel. After twenty minutes I heard a rustling noise in my closet, and I opened the shuttered doors to find my sheepish daughter, crouched on a pile of old shoeboxes.

“Didn’t you hear me calling?”

Yes, she nodded.

“Why have you been hiding there?”

“I heard you say that it was time for me to do my homework.”

Every child has a misery quotient, the line at which mere whining turns into real unhappiness. Some children are born miserable, their glass always half empty; others are made miserable by the adult world. And when it comes to squashing a child’s joy, there’s nothing like homework. In Julia’s mind, homework was the shadow haunting every day—the shapeless dread that grew larger with each passing year.

I sympathized with her aversion. Today’s public schools seem to have responded to the endless cry for achievement! by adding more worksheets to the homework pile. Math worksheets, grammar worksheets, bland spelling exercises. I wouldn’t mind so much if the work seemed more valuable—if Julia was asked to perform a fun science experiment, or to walk outside and compose a poem about the sounds in her yard. What rankles is the monotony of colorless paper, the columns of equations and fill-in-the-blank history.

As it turned out, Julia’s homework was minimal that afternoon. Once she climbed out of the closet and sat down in front of her books, the whole ordeal took barely ten minutes. She had spent an hour hiding to avoid ten minutes of schoolwork, and the thought of that warped equation broke my heart. It confirmed what I had been thinking for the past year—that my daughter needed a break, an escape, some air. Julia needed something to quell her growing misery.

My mind did not turn naturally toward homeschooling. I had always thought of it as a drastic measure. Homeschooling was for Mormons, for Bible-thumping Baptists, for children with disabilities, mental or physical, and for families who lived off the grid with solar heat and composting toilets. Homeschooling was a little bit weird.

But in the chameleonic world of modern parenthood, we mothers must constantly change colors to meet our children’s needs. We become accomplished fundraisers when our preschools need a fruit sale chair. We take up the violin when the Suzuki method calls for parent-child lessons. And when my daughter decided that she would rather hide in a closet for an hour than complete ten minutes of homework, I knew that it was time for me to become a schoolteacher, if only for a little while.

I told Julia that for one year we could try something different. Starting next September we could stay at home and follow a curriculum that combined her unique interests with the public schools’ idea of fifth grade essentials. She could study dinosaurs and dragons, as well as American history. She could learn some conversational French with her fluent father (on the afternoons when I taught part-time), and her daily violin practice could take place during school hours, rather than cramming it into her after-school schedule. Above all, we could plan field trips to Washington, Williamsburg and Jamestown, to art museums and science fairs and bookstores and concerts. I had only one caveat, stemming from my years of teaching freshman composition. Whatever Julia studied, I wanted her to write about it.

Of the three traditional “R”s in elementary education, writing is the component most often neglected. It’s a time-consuming enterprise, overlooked by many teachers who feel burdened with the exigencies of test preparation. Having no such burdens myself, I knew that if I was going to homeschool my daughter, I wanted her to compose essays and short stories and science reports, to write drafts and polish revisions, and keep the best of it in a portfolio.

Julia seemed willing enough when I described my plan. Lured by the promise that her only daily homework would be to write a page in a journal and read for an hour—something she did habitually—she agreed to my terms. And so from April to August of 2005 I gave myself a crash course in homeschooling.

It turns out that homeschooling is one of the fastest-growing trends in American education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the U. S. Department of Education), in 2003, 1.1 million children were being homeschooled in the United States–about 2.2 percent of America’s school-age population. Brian Ray, founder of the National Home Education Research Institute, places the total higher—somewhere between 1.7 and 2 million. Most experts agree that the number of homeschoolers seems to be expanding at a rate of about 7 to 10 percent per year.

It’s impossible to describe a “typical” homeschooled student in America, though the 2003 government study provides a rough profile. Overall, white children in America appear about twice as likely to be home taught as their black peers, and four times more likely than Hispanic children. Most homeschoolers come from two-parent families where only one parent works full-time. Households with one or two children seem equally drawn to homeschooling, but in families with three or more kids the odds of full-time home education double. Families with an annual income of more than $75,000 are less likely to homeschool, and rural homeschoolers outnumber their urban counterparts (“urban” being defined as 50,000 people or more). Finally, the South is the U. S. region with the most homeschoolers–the Northeast has the fewest. (Northeastern states also tend to have the most strict home education requirements, with more detailed specifications for curriculum and testing.)

These statistics, however, are sketchy at best. According to Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., who specializes in school choice, “You can’t get systematic data on homeschooling because most homeschoolers want to be left alone.” In other words, parents who shun government education also tend to avoid government tracking. The one thing McCluskey asserts with confidence is that homeschooling is “definitely expanding,” and this expansion has taken it well beyond its traditional base.

When homeschooling first emerged as a populist movement in the 1970s, it was spearheaded by two groups: Christian conservatives who favored Bible-based teaching and who deplored what they saw as a lack of moral values in America’s secular schools; and a more free-form crowd, alternately called ” liberal” or “libertarian,” who chafed against the constraints of institutionalized education and sought more “organic,” child-based forms of education. New York University professor Mitchell Stevens, in his book Kingdom of Children, explains how the Christians, with their tight social networks and strong organizational skills, surpassed the loosely based libertarians to become the predominant strain in American homeschooling. That’s why today, when the word “homeschooling” comes up in conversation, many Americans envision a fundamentalist Christian mom sitting at her kitchen table teaching creationism alongside algebra.

But over the past decade that stereotype has been fading. In the Department of Education’s 2003 study, less than half of the respondents cited religious motivations as their chief reason for homeschooling. (It might be one reason, but not the primary focus.) Instead, concerns over safety, drugs, and peer pressure topped the list. In addition, the study found more parents turning to homeschooling for purely academic reasons. As Neal McCluskey explains, “There’s a rise in people who want their children to learn more, faster and better.”

This expansion of home education doesn’t mean that Christian conservatives are taking a back seat. They remain the most solid, well-organized block in the homeschool world, and the new faces in the crowd—me included—who have turned to home education without any religious or philosophical compulsion, owe a debt of gratitude to the early pioneers who suffered jail time and substantial fines to blaze the homeschooling trail. Because of those groundbreaking efforts, home education is now legal nationwide, with fifteen states funding and supporting cyberschools, where homeschooled children can take courses with online instructors. California has even opened brick-and-mortar charter schools specifically designed to support homeschooling families, with teachers who provide enrichment classes, textbooks and videos, counseling and administrative aids.

Many homeschool traditionalists deplore these new developments as the U. S. government’s backdoor method of getting its bureaucratic tentacles back into their homes. For them, real homeschooling means that the parent is the teacher, not some intangible cyberinstructor with fifty students on her roster. Nevertheless, these new public initiatives show the legitimacy that home education has gained across America, and with this growing legitimacy comes an increased confidence and curiosity among so-called “mainstream” parents who are seeking educational options for their children.

That’s where short-term homeschooling comes in. The expansion of home education among America’s mainstream has made it a viable alternative for parents who are dealing with short-term problems. These problems might range from a bad principal to a persistent bully to a homework-phobic child hiding in a closet. Whatever the motivation, more and more parents are deciding that, when faced with problems at school, they don’t have to stick it out, or pay a fortune for a private academy. Instead, they can take a “do it yourself” approach to their children’s educations, teaching their kids at home for a limited time, with the intent of returning to the public (or private) schools at a not-so-distant date.

There are no statistics on how many parents have tried short-term homeschooling. The Department of Education does recognize “part-time homeschoolers”—students who spend less than twenty-five hours per week in school, and devote the rest of the day to learning at home. In 2003, eighteen percent of all homeschoolers fit the part-time mold. (Although guidelines vary across school districts, homeschoolers have the legal right to insist on access to some public classes. Even as I write this, a local friend has just embarked upon part-time home education. Her eighth grade son takes band, geography and algebra in the public system, while she teaches—or arranges for private tutors—in English, science and music.)

Short-term homeschoolers, however, remain well beneath the radars of both the U. S. government and most homeschooling organizations. The National Home Education Research Institute (one of the biggest clearinghouses for homeschooling data), draws a blank when it comes to data on short-termers, as do the folks at the Home Education Association of Virginia. “Sorry, that’s not part of our mission,” the receptionist said when I called their offices for information. Nevertheless, if you ask homeschooling advocates, authors and parents if they know of short term-homeschoolers nationwide, the anecdotes come pouring out.

Isabel Lyman, author of The Homeschooling Revolution, has met with several short-term home educators. “I’ve talked with parents whose child had a personality conflict with a particular teacher, or who had to face bullies, as reasons for short-term homeschooling,” she explained to me in a recent online interview. “Also medical issues or an accident or a school violence incident can drive families to this choice for a brief time. Colorado homeschool advocates reported receiving a gazillion phone calls after Columbine from parents who wanted information about homeschooling. No doubt some switched over but then switched back after the shock wore off.”

In her book, published in 2000, Lyman writes about a Massachusetts widow with a home business who removed her youngest son from elementary school for a couple of years when she became turned off by the school administration’s politically correct style. The boy apparently thrived, but he returned to the conventional system once middle school began, when a new cast of administrators was in his life.

Other parents see the perils of middle school as a driving impetus for home education, especially for young girls facing the sort of nasty peer pressures documented in books such as Queen Bees and Wannabees and Odd Girl Out. Sarah, a mother in my own corner of southwest Virginia, removed her daughter mid-year from the seventh grade when the viciousness of her child’s pre-teen peers began to wear visibly on the girl’s psyche. “She was awake at midnight, crying,” Sarah recalls. By eighth grade the problems had smoothed over, and mother and daughter were back to their normal routines at work and school. Another mom in South Carolina, whose story I encountered after posting a query on the About:homeschool forum, withdrew her daughter from middle school after the girl repeatedly came home with injuries, including marks on her neck from a choking incident. That parent informed her other children that they could stay in the public schools for their elementary and high school years if they wished, but when it came to middle school, homeschooling would be mandatory.

Short-term homeschooling also has a special appeal for families on the move. Kelly, a Georgia mom who also frequents the About:homeschool site, explained that she homeschooled for a year when, in the midst of relocating, her family lived in a neighborhood with a weak school system. Once the move was complete, her son was back in the public schools. “I do not regret my decision to homeschool,” she says. “I would do it again if needed. I also do not regret putting him in this particular school and teacher. She is great and does a superb job with my son.” Kelly described short-term home education as a valid choice, since many families today are transient.

Finally, there are the mothers who simply want more time with their children, or vice versa—the children are asking for more time with Mom. In the same year that Julia and I were playing geography games on our living room floor, at the opposite end of our county Christi and her ten-year-old daughter, Susan, were sitting at their kitchen table doing art projects. They, too, had entered homeschooling on the one-year plan, at Susan’s request. Although Christi was initially inclined to refuse, in the end she thought, “You know, they grow up so fast.” Meanwhile, Rebecca, three miles away, was reviewing multiplication tables with her fourth grade daughter, who also had asked to stay home for one year.

I often wonder if short-term homeschooling has a particular appeal for mothers and daughters. Most of my acquaintances who have tried it describe a need for “special time” with their girls. Of course my musings on this topic are wholly unscientific. The Department of Education’s homeschooling statistics show that girls and boys are almost equally likely to be homeschooled full-time, and since there are no studies on short-termers, I can’t say how their numbers break down by gender. It may be mere coincidence that among the twelve mothers who shared their stories for this article, seven were homeschooling a daughter, usually in response to their girl’s emotional needs. “I really got to know my daughter,” explained June from Alexandria, Virginia, a mother whom I located through the Virginia Organization of Homeschoolers. Homeschooling allowed June and to have long bedtime conversations with her eighth grader, rather than trying to finish homework and hurry to get minimal amounts of sleep. “We are so much closer now,” added Sarah, my local acquaintance, who loved her months with her middle-school daughter, but would never do it again. “I’m not cut out for teaching.”

And therein lies one of the greatest challenges behind short-term homeschooling: How can you do it well, when most parents have no professional training as educators and must try to go from zero to sixty in a matter of weeks? A mother may be the expert on her own child (and I stress mothers because women are the primary home educators nationwide, especially married women who aren’t employed full time), but most moms have no expertise in sifting through curriculums and pedagogical methods. Long-term homeschoolers have years to hone their craft, plenty of time to make mistakes and plot course corrections. But short-term home educators—in particular those who view the experience as an opportunity for enrichment, an educational bonus, not just a stop-gap measure—need to catch on fast if they want to make the most of their brief time. “I imagine that, as in any new endeavor, there’s a learning curve,” says the Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey. A parent can spend much of her first year “just trying to figure out how best to do it.” That was precisely the case for June, whose experimentation with teaching methods lasted well into the school year: “I was still trying to figure out our homeschool style (Charlotte Mason? Unschool? Classical?) when my husband declared, “You have six months left! Pick one and be done!”

As I discovered during my own sharp learning curve, there aren’t many resources to guide the short-term crowd. A basic Internet search yields a wealth of sample curriculums, how-to guides, and book-length pep talks, all designed to help novice homeschoolers get started. But most of these are written by authors with an all-or-nothing approach—parents who have removed all of their children from the public schools, or who never tried those schools in the first place, and who often have negative attitudes toward public education, ranging from mildly dismissive to openly nasty. None of these authors consider the pros and cons of supplemental homeschooling, i.e., how to build on the public schools’ foundation, to give a child one good year.

Some folks might question whether separate advice is needed for short-term homeschoolers. “Supplemental homeschooling isn’t all that different from the regular deal,” one Internet correspondent told me. “All the usual books apply.” But that’s not quite true. While the homeschooling books on today’s shelves are a crucial starting point for any curious parent, in their philosophies, their curriculums, and their pedagogical methods they often offer advice that doesn’t apply to one-year dabblers.

Take, for instance, The Well-Trained Mind, one of the most impressive homeschooling guides available, written in 1999 by the mother-daughter team, Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer. These women advocate a classical education in which global history is the guiding principle, with literary masterpieces and scientific discoveries taught in a historical chronology. In this model, the first through twelfth grades are divided into three repetitions of a four-year pattern: the ancients (5000 bc to ad 400), medieval through early Renaissance (400 to 1600), late Renaissance through early modern times (1600 to 1850), and modern times (1850 to present). Grade school children study each time period at a simple level; fifth through eight graders delve into the same subjects with increasing complexity, and by high school, students should be reading original sources in translation.

It’s an ambitious agenda, and not without flaws; the authors often slight children’s creativity, and they minimize the importance of music and art and the need for play. Still, reading The Well-Trained Mind provides an education in itself, and offers an ideal vision of human intellectual potential. For me, however, the book was also a major guilt trip. It reminded me of how, in our imperfect worlds, we mothers are constantly falling short. The best I could hope for Julia was that, by year’s end, she would have read some children’s versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey.

At the other end of the spectrum stand the advocates of “child-centered education,” who let the curriculum follow each child’s interests (an approach which, in its loosest variety, takes the form of pure unschooling). David Guterson’s Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense (1992) offers beautiful descriptions of how he nurtured his sons’ curiosity about salmon: “Feeding the salmon fry, weekly, at a nearby holding pond, and measuring their growth and development, graphing changes in water temperature and flow, examining eggs, weighing out feed.” Not to mention the days they spent “visiting the Elwha River hatchery, the fish ladders at the Rocky Reach dam, the Science Center Display on the Nootka people.”

It all sounds wonderful—extended field trips and hands-on learning and long, winding conversations. These are the freedoms that homeschooling allows, whether short-term or long. But unschooling in its freest form doesn’t appeal when re-entry into the public system hovers in the near future. At a minimum, short-term home educators must ensure that their children do not fall behind the public benchmarks in math and English, as well as any foreign language track where the child wants to keep up with her peers. Even in the Guterson household, his wife insisted that their nine-year-old spend a few hours every morning at the kitchen table with her, practicing math and writing.

Short-term homeschoolers usually remain tethered to their school systems’ educational priorities. “That’s the biggest difference between short-term and full-time homeschooling,” explained Rebecca, who chose to stick closely to her elementary school’s curriculum when teaching her fourth grader. Rebecca was content with Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) model, and wanted to be sure that her daughter didn’t miss anything.

Other parents start out with their school’s objectives in mind, but leave them behind as mother and child gain their own footing. So it was for Sarah, hunkered down with her seventh-grader at the other end of our town. They began in January with a stack of heavy textbooks, planning to follow the middle school assignments which were posted daily on the Internet. But civics was never meant to be learned from a book, and neither were half of the other school subjects. For Sarah, the greatest “Aha!” moments came when she set aside the texts and followed her daughter’s budding culinary passion. Lessons in Mediterranean cooking expanded into explorations of geography and history.

My own plan was to use the public curriculum as a foothold, and try to climb the fifth grade mountain from there. Math provided a typical example. I was surprised that my ten-year-old had never encountered Roman numerals. Nor did she have any concept of where “Arabic” numerals came from, or the history of zero (why didn’t the Romans use it?). So I wanted to back up and look at the history of counting and examine early Mayan and Egyptian numbers before we continued with the public agenda of fractions and decimals and long division.

The same was true with social studies. Julia was bored with her school’s heavy focus on American history. She wanted to study the Maya, Aztecs and Incas. She also loved natural history, especially dinosaurs—a topic our school had removed from its first grade curriculum, since dinosaurs are not included in the Virginia first grade Standard of Learning topics. And so we tried to do it all, beginning with the Big Bang (and a brief nod to creationism) followed by an overview of the planet’s development and the evolution of successive life forms through multiple ice ages. We leaped from homo habilis to the Maya, then in January spent a month on Native Americans before we ever reached Columbus. In the end we squashed the usual fifth grade history curriculum into three months, and spiced up the SOL basics with more provocative women, like Anne Hutchinson. “That’s ambitious,” one homeschooling mom laughed when I described our course. In other words: “That’s too much.”

The danger of trying to balance a public curriculum with personal interests is that you can fall into a game of “Anything you can do, I can do better.” If the public school fifth graders are adding and subtracting fractions, then your child should be multiplying and dividing them. If they are studying place value through the billions, you should consider trillions and quadrillions. This is not as difficult as it sounds, since the public school day includes an enormous amount of repetition and wasted time. But keeping tabs on your local school produces paranoia. Is my child missing something essential? Will she fail her first sixth grade math test because I overlooked a key concept?

Trips to the local bookstore can further feed the short-term homeschooler’s paranoia. In my town’s cozy cat-inhabited store, with its children’s section twice as large as that at any Barnes and Noble, Julia and I spent wonderful hours soaking in the new titles. And yet, whenever I passed the Education shelf, my stomach lurched. There was E. D. Hirsch, perched atop his hill of Cultural Literacy, expounding on What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know. Julia hadn’t been exposed to most of Hirsch’s third grade essentials, which included Constantine and the Byzantine Empire, and scientists like Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and Elijah McCoy. Even I, with my Ph.D., didn’t know half the stuff.

Equally intimidating were the displays of Summer Bridge Activities—those big paperback reams of worksheets, designed to keep your child grinding away over the summer months. The fifth grade book placed a major emphasis on human anatomy, which convinced me that Julia was missing something essential. So she and I spent two futile weeks learning the names of all the bones in the human skeleton. (The metacarpals are connected to the…phalanges).

So much to learn, so little time. Full-time home educators have the luxury of years upon years spreading out before them: “If we don’t get to the Maya this spring, there’s always next fall.” In addition, homeschoolers with strong religious and philosophical approaches tend to be weaned from the public schools’ competitive mindset, in which children are constantly graded, ranked, and compared. They don’t feel the same pressures to keep up with age-based curricular models. As one mother from Earlysville, Virginia, told me in an e-mail:

In short term homeschooling I personally felt very tied to the school system, to make sure my son was “keeping up” with his peers. But the families I know who make homeschooling a long-term commitment see it as a lifestyle, and they feel much less pressure to stay the course… It’s about learning as a way of life, and finding what makes you happy.

In the end, every parent must cling to his or her own pedagogical rock, whether that involves lifelong learning, religious teachings, or, in my case, a belief in the value of the written word. So long as Julia was constantly writing, I felt that we were on the right track. My confidence grew with the length of her portfolio.

At the same time, I was glad that Julia and I didn’t entirely abandon the public curriculum, because Virginia’s standardized learning topics inspired some of her brightest epiphanies. Take, for instance, the time when we studied the earth’s layers—core, mantle and crust—one small component in Virginia’s fifth grade requirements.

“We should make a model of the earth’s interior,” I said to Julia one morning. “What would you like to use? Playdough?” I imagined concentric rings of clay, balls within balls, cut in half to reveal the multi-colored stratums. “Or would you like to slice a Styrofoam ball in half? You could paint the earth’s layers onto the flat center.”

Julia shook her head.

“Well, what do you want to use?”

“Fruit,” she said.


Yes, fruit.

From the basket on our kitchen table Julia lifted a kiwi, then took a steak knife and cut it in half. She held the green fruit to my eyes, and there was a model of the earth: the white core, surrounded by the squishy green mantle, with black seeds like the rocks that float in the earth ‘s magma, and on the outside, the thin dry crust. I felt completely humbled, reminded that all life is connected in repeated patterns—as when one learns that the ratio of water to land on our planet is the same as the ratio of liquid to solid in the human body.

The lesson continued for ten minutes more as Julia and I took turns cutting tectonic plates into the kiwi’s crust, carving a drippy Ring of Fire. “Look,” said Julia, “when the plates shift, the mountain ranges form.” She squeezed the kiwi, and a ridge of lumpy green flesh emerged on the surface. I couldn’t have been more proud if she had painted the Mona Lisa. My daughter could see the world within a slice of fruit.

One final challenge for short-term homeschoolers rests in the arena of social life—how to keep it active for both the child and mother. Socialization is a key concern for all homeschoolers. Fortunately, with the nationwide expansion of home education, more and more communities have established support networks, with families gathering for field trips and pot lucks and classes taught by visiting experts. “Those are life-savers,” says Luis Huerta, a professor at Columbia’s Teachers’ College in New York who has studied homeschooling. According to Huerta, the potential for alienation is one of the biggest reasons why some parents give up on home education. It’s an enormously difficult job, and mothers who take it on usually need strong support groups.

But Huerta didn’t know whether the majority of homeschool networks would welcome short-term visitors into their midst. His research into homeschool charter schools revealed bitter divides between parents who want nothing to do with government-funded education, and those who are willing to take advantage of classes or resources offered at public sites. One mother in Huerta’s study contrasted the early “people of conviction” in the homeschooling movement with “the new breed” that want to have their cake and it eat too.

I count myself among this new breed (although I’ve never laid eyes on a charter school), because I want my daughter to experience what’s best in the public system, supplemented by whatever I can offer as a homeschooling novice. If homeschooling purists feel antagonistic toward their long-term peers who have taken advantage of government-funded charter schools, I can imagine how they’d roll their eyes at folks like me, deeply entrenched in the public system and using homeschooling as a temporary sabbatical—an approach which, admittedly, cannot yield any of the long-term benefits of home education. In fact, one thing that short-termers must get used to when reading most homeschooling literature is the chastising tone toward parents who maintain bonds with the public schools. Even Isabel Lyman, an otherwise open and helpful homeschooling advocate, had this to say in a 2003 blog interview with author Peter Brimelow: “Why in the world would any parent with half a brain place their precious child in an American public school?” (“You have to remind me how punchy I can sound, huh?” she replied when I showed her the quote in an online exchange.)

There is bound to be a social void between committed homeschoolers and the short-term crowd. Some temporary homeschoolers with strong religious roots have reported being welcomed into local Christian support groups. Meanwhile June, from Alexandria, found homeschool Girl Scouts to be a godsend. But not everyone can expect the same social support. In our own small town, Julia and I attended a few of our local homeschooling functions, including one very good trilobite dig, but while everyone was nice enough, it was clear that we were merely observers in these families’ world. We were neither as religious as some, nor as liberal as others. The high school kids were too old for Julia, the first-graders too young. If we had possessed vast amounts of time to get to know them all, the distinctions in ages and beliefs might have faded. But social bonds require years to grow, and we never became regulars on their e-mail list.

At the same time, Julia missed out on the social rituals of the public school year. At our elementary school’s annual Halloween parade, when the costumed children marched through the school’s neighborhood, Julia stood beside me on the curb, watching the long procession of fairies and wizards, her sisters among them (who’ve so far been content with their school routine), waving their butterfly wings. When the principal spotted Julia, she stepped out of the parade long enough to give her a hug, and I pitied my daughter in her homebound exile.

Later that year, when her fifth grade friends performed a musical version of Schoolhouse Rock, I glanced at Julia, sitting in the audience by my side, thinking that now she must surely regret our decision to homeschool.

“Would you have liked to be in that play?” I asked when we walked out.

She shook her head. “No way.”

Julia didn’t miss the plays or the concerts, the kickball games or field trips (we had plenty of our own). What she missed were the parties. Her elementary school was a party heaven, with Halloween bashes, Thanksgiving mini-feasts, Christmas celebrations and birthday cupcakes. “Can’t we have a party?” Julia asked on Valentine’s day. So we went to our local tea room, where one can dress in wild hats and tiaras and long white gloves, and we sipped Moroccan Madness tea while munching on cookies and sorbet. But a mother in a boa does not a party make. Julia received no Valentines that year, except from Mom, Dad, and Grandma.

Of course, Julia was constantly meeting other human beings—chatting with historical re-enactors; counting change with shopkeepers; asking questions of librarians and park rangers and musicians. Her after-school schedule included dance classes and tennis lessons with schoolmates who asked about her homeschooling with curiosity and envy. “I wish my Mom would homeschool me,” one little dancer lamented. “I hate school.”

But despite the social contact that I took pains to schedule, for many, many hours in the week Julia and I sat alone in our quiet rural house, while outside the cows and ducks and herons moved in slow motion. After a while one understands why homeschooling is most common in households with three or more children. The family becomes a social unit, taking the scrutiny off one child, and distributing the parent’s attention and frustrations. In the one-on-one homeschooling that I and most of my acquaintances practiced, the dangers of isolation and resentment loomed large. “I did feel at times that there was a noose around my neck,” confessed Christi, reminiscing on her year with her ten-year-old. The rope was less tight than when her children were babies—those wonderful and terrible days of diapers and bibs and bottles had been the most claustrophobic experience of her life. But homeschooling had its own quality of constriction.

So it was for Sarah, who had felt relieved, years earlier, when all her children were off at school. At last she could have time for herself, working at a job that she enjoyed. Homeschooling meant paring that job way down and returning to the house for much of her day. Inevitably there were tensions, especially when her daughter failed to meet her end of the bargain, becoming uncooperative, or surly, or slow.

Most homeschooling books never speak of these tensions—the power struggles and resentments and irrational moments of fury that emerge in any family, however loving. Many authors, even the secular ones, have an evangelical, sometimes self-congratulatory tone, trying to persuade other parents to join the fold. Reading them, one would think that homeschooling is an endlessly rosy enterprise, filled with brilliant, cooperative children well on their way to the Ivy League. In all my reading I never found a book that addressed what I feared most—the battles.

Julia and I have had power struggles since she was two. Getting her out of bed can be a Sisyphean task. And so I never expected our year to be smooth sailing; but neither did I expect that I could so easily be pushed into raging temper tantrums. Halfway through our year Julia nicknamed me “the volcano,” because of my tendency to swing from a state of calm, green dormancy into a heap of spitting lava, especially on those days when Julia seemed to get nothing done.

This is where advocates of unschooling are bound to wave their flags. “Follow the child ‘s interests,” they always say. “Then she’ll be self-motivated. Let dragon books lead to lessons in flight and fire, studies of winged dinosaurs and the legends of ancient China.” In fact, we tried all of that. But whether the subject was dragons or fractions, the result was always the same. If I was not nearby to push and prod and cheer, Julia would muddle through her tasks at the pace of an aging sloth.

One afternoon at our public library I described my concerns to a seasoned homeschooler, a teacher-certified mother with an advanced degree in early education. I expected her to tell me what I was doing wrong. Instead, she sadly shook her head: “That’s the story of my life.”

The more mothers I queried, the more confessions I heard. Many moms had similar trouble keeping their young learners on track, and the relentless foot-dragging sometimes drove the parents crazy. “I was sobbing” one mother put it; “absolute fury” said another. “There were days,” according to June,” “where I felt that if I didn’t get away from my daughter I would plotz.” Maryanne, who’d expected to be a long-term home educator when she removed her two sons from the local middle school, gave up on the plan when she found herself locked in ugly confrontations with her elder son. “Look at what this is doing to you,” her husband finally said. Her boys were back on the school bus the following fall.

Social bonds with other homeschoolers are essential, if only to allow a mother time to air her frustrations. In my darkest moments I was glad that my homeschooling was limited to one year. That light at the end of the tunnel served as my guiding star. But when the light expanded into the sunshine of mid-June, I felt surprisingly sad. For in the end, it had been a good year. Julia and I had grown closer through our moments of triumph and anger. She had read and written and calculated more than ever before in the public schools. And now that she has entered a conventional middle school, and is once again oppressed by the combination of piles of homework, little fresh air (no recess in middle school) and endless multiple choice tests (multiple choice is the greatest sign of the failure of American education), she often grows nostalgic.

“Remember last October when the leaves were turning? We walked around town identifying trees with our field guide, making photographs and leaf rubbings and writing a paragraph about each one?”

Yes, I remember.

“That was fun,” she said. “Let’s do it again.”

Julia has even begun to ask about homeschooling for the eighth grade, a possibility that I have not ruled out. But in the meantime, my daughter needs more time away from Mom (excessive mothering is one of the most common concerns about homeschoolers). A third-party adult can often inspire a child more deeply than pleas from dear old Mother, which is why many homeschoolers hire tutors. In addition, the presence of a peer group in a public classroom can keep a child on task, who might, in a home setting, have problems staying focused, and the social diversity in the public schools can’t be matched in today’s homeschooling communities.

In the end, I believe in supporting public education in America, especially in districts like ours, where the schools are small and safe. But in return, the public schools should be supporting America’s families, not filling our children’s family time with more schoolwork. While I am willing to leave my daughter’s education in the hands of the public schools until three o’clock each day, after-school hours should be devoted to exercise, art, music, and unstructured play—all of the highly educational activities that many schools, in their test-bound shackles, have cut to the bare bones. When excessive homework gets in the way of family time—time for long conversations, as well as visits to museums and parks and concerts—that’s when the schools have crossed my line in the sand. And that’s when Julia and I will be back in our local coffee shop, spending our Wednesday mornings speaking bits of French over a game of chess.

Laura Brodie teaches English at Washington and Lee University, in Virginia, where she lives with her husband and three daughters. She is the author of The Widow’s Season, Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women, Love in a Time of Homeschooling: A Mother and Daughter’s Uncommon Year (Harper 2010), and All the Truth. Find her at

Brain, Child (Spring 2007)


Threshold to Summer

Threshold to Summer


IMG_1206It’s that threshold to summer moment. The other day I walked, not to go anywhere, simply to enjoy the air, and composed haiku in my head. I won’t tell you how long it took, although I will admit if you saw me walking yes, I did count on my fingers. Tulips, lilacs, gone/Peonies, irises, go./Next, summer. Roses.

With summer, comes a sense of a season set apart. Without school—and here in a college town, that’s a profound difference not just in a household with school age kids but everywhere—the energy shifts. There are longer days, swimming pools to dip into and ice cream to lick outside. There’s dirt and sweat and a sense that we are supposed to have fun (“supposed to?”). For the past four summers on my personal blog I’ve created a Summer Wish List. I will do it again before the solstice. It’s a little wishes, a little resolution, a little what’s great to do in the corner of New England where I live, and a little bit of a note to myself.

My family, I think it’s safe to say about this particular year, is maxed out on “supposed to.” The school year wasn’t easy for every person and there have been big adjustments, like Kindergarten (love, love, love, but still, epic adjustment). There were challenging work disappointments and frustrations. If I were to characterize our recent months, I’d say we did a pretty hefty amount of coping. So, I both feel the ways we could use the breathy delights of expansion—explore, enjoy, just… be elsewhere—and the balm of rest and relaxation. Even if I write a long list, the truer list will be short. The truer list will be about whatever makes us feel good day-to-day and feels restorative.

Also, on my list will be to read books. The little gal has begun to read (and I have the biggest writer-and-parent crush on Elephant and Piggie these days) and it’s a true delight to watch and listen to her determined efforts and reap the benefits of increased fluency daily. My fifth grader has to be pushed to read—and only sometimes, rarely, accepts the nudge. That’s in stark contrast to the eldest guy, who pretty much read his way through childhood. He retains a physical attachment to books; he reads them and carries them and keeps them. I’ve been very hands-off about reading. For the eldest, I stopped insisting he put the book down every single night at dinner (some nights, just not all of them) because he found such comfort in them. I have been hands-off in the opposite direction too because not every kid loves to read and that doesn’t mean the adult version will eschew reading. Still, with him, I’d like to find a way to reintroduce the idea that just maybe reading can be fun and relaxing and interesting.

And my memories of my bigger kids’ elementary school years included some great read aloud times, either as they ate dinner or at bedtime. I want to find ways to recreate that pleasure more consistently for my smaller gal, despite the frenzy that takes place when there’s more activity around us—and more screens. Because these days, books aren’t as omnipresent in the household as devices with screens (my laptop included), and so I realize it’ll take a little effort to change our family’s current culture—and summer seems to present itself as an opportunity for this.

An opportunity for me, too: I have used my writer hat as a push myself to read, as in read a book and then write about it. This turns out to be a reasonable incentive. The thing is, whether I have to fabricate a little prompt or not, once I’m reading it’s such a pleasant thing to do (duh, I always won the summer bookworm contests in elementary school).

Even if it doesn’t happen often, I am going to hold out an image of us at home, lazing around and reading on a rainy weekend afternoon. The image alone makes me smile. Whether I’ll succeed and what success really means to me is anybody’s guess. I don’t want to attach a number of books or amount of time allotted to reading. I don’t want this to exactly be a list item, a de facto chore. I do want to read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle one more time, though. That radish cure is something every kid should hear at least once no matter how dated Betty MacDonald’s cookie-serving neighborhood seems in 2014.



By Marie Myung-Ok Lee

IMG_1024On Saturdays I drive to another state to take J, my three-year-old, post-cancer, autistic son, to the Happy Trails Stables, a facility for hippotherapy for mentally and physically disabled children.

I found out about Happy Trails back in another life—before I had J. As a child, I’d made a promise to myself that I would always try to do some kind of volunteer work. When a friend with a child who has cerebral palsy mentioned the stable, I thought, Aha! The perfect volunteer job. I had shown quarter horses as a child, and my skills could help severely disabled children. Noble and yet secretly indulgent of my addiction to the smell of horse manure.

The idea simmered on the back burner for years, but I never got around to actually calling Happy Trails. Miscarriages, pregnancy, an on-again-off-again writing career, my father’s suicide, and a few other things got in the way—and now my son is one of those riding children whom I once envisioned with a mixture of pity and compassion. And I’m no brave horse-wrangler—I’m just a mom, planting my boot on the side rails, watching the parade of children go by.

Happy Trails is the Platonic ideal of a stable. You enter it via a winding drive that passes woods and rolling sedge fields. There is a barn, an arena, and an outdoor riding ring surrounded by a weathered whitewashed fence—it can’t get any more quaint. Happy Trails even has its own art gallery displaying oil-painted renditions of its bucolic splendor.

What is different from your average stable is a long wooden ramp leading up to what looks like a stage set up in the arena, so that children of varying abilities can mount their horses. Wheelchairs can be pushed up the ramp. The tack room has a neat row of bridles with the horses’ names—Kimmie, Paint, Thor, Gus—but also a row of pediatric helmets hanging next to thick web belts with handles, as well as an assortment of textured rubber balls and other tools used for physical therapy. On a table sits an issue of Equine magazine next to a splayed catalogue of “mobility tools” for the differently abled: foam blocks, chew-toys, full-body wheelchairs, and an assortment of braces—unsettling in their scope and variety—to buttress hypotonic (low muscle) children into a semblance of sitting or standing upright.

When J and I arrive, I put J’s helmet and belt on him. Part of J’s disability involves his extreme dislike of doing anything anyone wants him to do, and so the next phase involves me and his therapist dragging forty pounds of kicking, biting, and screaming J up the ramp and onto the back of his horse, Kimmie, who amazingly ignores the commotion.

The smallest children, like three-year-old J, do not use saddles but instead hang on to a metal steering wheel attached to what looks like a giant canvas luggage strap circling the horse’s middle. The children wear web belts around their middles so that the “side walkers”—an adult volunteer and the therapist—can hold the kid on the horse, while a third volunteer holds the horse’s lead.

Kimmie is a placid gelding the gray-white color of old underwear. In all my years of being a serious rider, I have never seen such unbeautiful horses as I have here. Swaybacked, knock-kneed, strange mixtures of breeds, like the stumpy pony who looks unmistakably part draft horse. These mounts have no wild oats to sow; they are all at least fifteen years old. Gus, the one who is so sway-backed that he looks like some kind of camel, is purportedly fifty years old, which would translate to about 130 years in human age.

They come to Happy Trails in a variety of ways: Most are donated or plucked from the dog food factory line to retire to a nice life of working a few hours a day and then spending the rest lazing in pasture. The horses must have an even, plodding gait and unflappable personalities. As a test, a trainer gets on their backs, screams, flails, falls off—does everything short of shooting a gun. The horses that remain unmoved are accepted.

I think J secretly loves riding, but he is big on what the therapists call “counter-control.” For example, during his Skinner-based therapy, when we reward him with edible treats, he often hands the treats back—after spitting on them—to show us he can’t be bought.

So no matter how much he really enjoys riding, the fact that we are making him do it has to be acknowledged first. As he tantrums up the ramp, J tries to pull off his helmet, kicks at me and the therapist, and reaches over and yanks the patient Kimmie’s mane. (Horses actually have no nerve endings in their hair’s roots, but J doesn’t need to know this). What the therapists have learned to do is to toss J on like a sack of potatoes and start running off the minute J’s little butt hits Kimmie’s back. J has no recourse but to hang on for dear life.

Kimmie trots off. J screams with rage, tiny hands clinging to the steering wheel. But there is a flash of happiness in his eyes. A moving roller coaster! He loves it, truly.

In the lingo of therapists, riding a horse challenges balance, bilateral movement, and cross-midline skills (e.g., moving your right arm to the left, which requires a surprisingly complex brain action), skills that the able-bodied take for granted. For children who have never walked unassisted, being atop a moving horse actually allows them to experience the rocking pelvis sensation of human walking.

J has motor delays, likely stemming from the trauma of his spinal cord cancer, and could use some of that cross-midlining. The therapists also assure us that hippotherapy will help him with his relationship skills, since many autistic children end up bonding with their mounts. And it has the further benefit of being fiscally therapeutic for Mommy and Daddy: we spend more than twenty thousand dollars a year out of pocket on his various therapies, but our state Medicaid, though collapsing under the weight of drastic budget cuts, shells out the ten dollars a week for this.

During our first sessions, I was so consumed with getting J successfully atop his horse, and then bursting with pride to see my little guy bouncing atop Kimmie—what a good seat! just like his mommy!—that I was oblivious to my surroundings, the other children, the other parents. But then the therapists started taking J for little trail rides around the farm, leaving me behind with nothing to do but watch the other kids going ’round and ’round the indoor ring.

My initial impression was that the whole enterprise was a Flannery O’Connor story accompanied by Diane Arbus photos. The bucolic setting, the misfit horses, the impossibly deformed and damaged children. Some kids, like J, scream. Others jibber-jabber. There is also a silent rider, who is microcephalic, adult in size but still able to wear those tiny pediatric helmets.

There’s the family whose daughter (seven? nine? twelve?) is in a full-body wheelchair, her limbs the texture of overcooked spaghetti. I always admire the aplomb with which the father or mother—they seemed to switch off—manages to get their daughter ensconced in the wheelchair, grab their Dunkin’ Donuts coffee out of the van’s cupholder, and wheel to the tack room. One day I saw that the mother had added a baby on her hip to the whole load, and I thought, Wow, that’s nice, at least they have a healthy daughter. Then when I came closer, I saw that the baby had floppy limbs encased in plastic braces, much like her sister’s.

There is also a father and son who have the session right after J’s, so as we finish up, we often see them unloading. The boy, about twelve and quite large, has some kind of mobility problem, but he doesn’t use a wheel-chair: His father hugs him around the armpits from behind and the two of them “walk.” They do this every week, stubbornly, lovingly, insistently. I can’t help wondering what will happen as the boy grows larger—he’s bordering on the obese—and the father weaker. This center will not hold.

Unlike my friends, who spent their pregnancies cupping their hands on their bellies and smiling knowingly, I was tormented during my pregnancy by visions of deformity. The very opacity of my skin over my womb only added to my anxiety. Anything could be growing in there, I thought.

As a child, my physician father tried to get me interested in medicine by bringing home medical texts from the office. I became fascinated with one, Gross Malformations of the Human Anatomy. I could spend hours poring over the pages, cataloging the endless ways things could go haywire in the process of a sixteen-celled blastocyst actually growing, dividing into muscles, bones, organs, skin.

Being at Happy Trails was not unlike seeing the strange wanderings of my mind somehow realized in front of my face. The visual trauma was different than being in the oncology ward, where every child has a chemo stent in his neck, or at J’s autism school, where every kid is staring off into space and making bizarre noises. Here on display is the full wild range of disability and damage: brain injury, malformed limbs, genetic deformities.

One day I spotted an older rider—she had some wrinkles along with obvious mental retardation—and I wondered what she was doing at Happy Trails. Then I saw a much older, much wrinklier couple—her parents—and realized that yes, she is someone’s child, and yes, as these children grow, their deformities will grow along with them. I can’t help being curious now when I see someone new at Happy Trails—what are these riders’ disabilities, and are they physical, mental, or both?

It didn’t take long to find out. Some of the parents look bored out of their skulls and seemed happy to converse with a scruffy Korean-American woman who looks twelve years old. (I am often mistaken for J’s babysitter.) They talked strangely freely of their children’s disabilities and confirmed my suspicions that many of the physically handicapped children have mental problems as well. And here I thought we were such singular victims of bad luck, a child with cancer and autism.

I hesitated over revealing too much in return. There’s a part of me that wants the world to know how much J has suffered—spinal cord tumor at eighteen months, endless painful surgeries, full-body casts and wheelchairs, and now the pain of autism—so the world will be “nice” to him. But at the same time I have a fierce faith that he will recover, and so I don’t want him to be burdened with the history of being the cancer kid, the autistic.

When the parents spoke of their children’s disabilities, I was happy to listen. But when confronted directly with their offspring and their shocking deformities, I had to consciously force myself to act “normal”—i.e., making eye contact but not staring too little or too much, because I know too well how I feel when this is done to us.

But after a few weeks of putting on this careful act, a strange thing happens: I find something in my brain softening and shifting and I start seeing so-and-so’s kid only as so-and-so’s kid. Not to sound too Jerry Lewis, but I start seeing the child and not the disability.

It is the brain’s instinct to normalize, basically. Good and bad things alike. My husband said that his high after being granted tenure at a great university lasted exactly three hours, and then it wasn’t exciting anymore.

After hanging around Happy Trails long enough, the families become familiar as well. Coming from three different states, they are mostly upper-middle-class and educated, typical of people who have the time and skills to seek out such esoteric therapies, basically the same kind of folks I deal with every day in our college town. We talk about meaningless things, the weather—which is always changing, this being New England—as well as about things that matter. How cuts in spending are affecting special education. About new medical procedures that our children have to undergo. Occasionally, of progress.

And it starts feeling good in its own odd way, this mundanity.

“You got enough room, Al?” one of the fathers calls as he moves his car, knowing that Al needs extra elbow room to haul out his enormous son. This casual consideration—not the condescending, you-poor-people, special-needsy politeness but just nice everyday politeness—is rewarding to us all. As Al parks and then struggles with uncorking his gigantic son from the car and then does their plodding tandem walk, a scene that would certainly draw popeyed stares anywhere else, the rest of us chitchat. For us, it’s just another Saturday at Happy Trails.

I used to wonder how they convinced the people in Gross Malformations to submit themselves as models. The photos are uniformly stark, wholly unflattering black-and-whites. The subjects, when their faces are shown, stare off without a trace of emotion—no happiness, rage, shame, anger, or pride. They wear no clothes, no identifying markers except for their deformities. What would be in it for them? I wondered. I doubted they would go home and tell their friends, Hey! I’m appearing in this book called Gross Malformations!

But I remember when I started imagining the people—webbed hands, gaping cleft palate, an unclosed abdominal cavity through which small intestines poke out like polish sausage—back in their lives, back at home with their “gross” malformations. There was probably an altruistic sense that they were helping the cause of medicine. But maybe also a sense of belonging—there’s no reason to be embarrassed over being naked and showing off one’s deformity when everyone else was naked and showing off, too. The more the merrier.

And we, too, welcome any and all to our select society. With our cups of coffee and cars with the handicapped placards hanging off the rearview mirrors instead of graduation tassels, there we stand with our jagged, battered hearts in the middle of life, our lives, lives about which the Buddhist in me says simply: They are what they are. And, just the way I imagined the models for the Gross Malformations book did, after our sessions are over, we pack up our kids—wheelchairs, crutches, braces, damaged brains—and head back into the world with all its grimly fixed judgments, all the while contemplating, What is normal, exactly?

Author’s Note: J now seems to prefer bulldozers to horses, although he occasionally speaks fondly of Kimmie. We have come to the conclusion that autism is a biological disorder of the immune system triggered by environmental factors and thus, his cancer and autism might not be a case of lightning striking twice, but may actually be intimately related, and we are pursuing treatments in this direction with so far small, but significant, improvements.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee is writing a novel about and OB and the future of medicine (forthcoming in 2015 from Simon & Schuster). Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, Slate, Salon, and The Atlantic. She teaches creative writing at Columbia. You can find her on Facebook.

Brain, Child (Winter 2006)

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Why I Take My Children to Church

Why I Take My Children to Church

By Lyz Lenz

Praying 2On Sunday morning, I find myself facing off with my toddler. She is dressed in a hand-me down Easter dress, sparkly shoes and a plastic tiara. Her face is covered with the chocolate and sprinkles that comprised her breakfast. I don’t even have time to wipe her face, we’re already late for church. She is screaming because she doesn’t want her coat to make her dress “smushy.” My voice is tense. The baby is in his car seat crying for his pacifier. My husband is in the car. I just want her to put on a coat so we can go to church learn about the love of God. But I’m already swearing under my breath.

Sometimes I wonder why we wake up early every Sunday morning, wrangle two unwilling children into outfits that they hate, force them to eat breakfast and then haul them out the door, only to then force them to be quiet in uncomfortable chairs while we listen to words they don’t understand. Church inevitably overlaps with naptime, so we have to rush out with a crying baby and a toddler who doesn’t want to leave. And some weeks, I’m more than just frustrated with the routine; I’m frustrated with the politics of church, the power structure and false hierarchies. I get tired of the implicit acceptance of women as less—a belief that still persists, only now we use coded words and phrases like “helper” and “partner” and “letting men be leaders.” I hate that church seems to be the only place in my life where people talk with distain about giving gays the right to marry in one moment then sing about the love of God in the next.

Why do we take our children to church when so many of our peers are fleeing? According to a Pew Study, an increasing number of Millennials are skipping church and religious institutions. And not because they don’t have faith: a whopping 73% of Americans still consider themselves religious. Millennials eschewing church is often equated with a lack of faith, but I think it means something more. I think it means a dissatisfaction with a church, a religion that often forces people to choose between God and intellect, science and belief, love and righteousness. This is not the legacy I want to leave my children.

I grew up Fundamentalist, one of a quiver full of children, my parents took us to church three times a week. I remember as a 10-year-old, asking a pastor at a church potluck, “If God is light, then is the absence of God darkness?” He patted my head and answered me with a mouthful of brisket. “Don’t worry about it honey. God already answered all your questions. Just stop asking.”

When I escaped to college, I stopped going to church, I considered myself agnostic. Then, after I got married, I found myself still looking for something else, still believing in that omnipresent “other.” So, my husband and I began church shopping. We struggled to find a place where we could belong. We left one church after the pastor railed against “The Da Vinci Code” from the pulpit, holding it up as evidence of a depraved and fallen culture. My husband and I went and saw the movie the following week. We left another church after having a woman scream at me over whether I should or should not sew aprons for the people who worked in the coffee bar. And then, there was the church that sent elders to our house. And when I didn’t let them inside, they prayer walked around our apartment for twenty minutes.

Three years ago, frustrated and disillusioned, my husband and I, along with some friends, started our own church. Our hope was to create something new, something relevant, and something that used faith to reach out to the people around us. Although the majority were Evangelical, we didn’t want to be affiliated with a denomination, we didn’t want their baggage, their oversight or their rules. This church, we hoped, would be a home, it would be a community.  A place where questions would be welcome, along with crying babies and overwrought hearts.

Yet, like all utopias and new worlds, our experiment has fallen short of our goals. We’ve had low attendance, infighting, and a leader who was a serial cheater. But we’ve also had moments of transcendence—we’ve provided meals for people who are sick, in the hospital and grieving, we built a roof for members who couldn’t afford a new one. And it’s a place where my children are loved and cherished. People love to hold my baby while I drink coffee and sneak my three-year-old donuts. There is something about a community that is built around a common search for spirituality that has the ability to eschew the superficial and directly embrace the heart. It’s dysfunctional, problematic, and—for all the good and all the bad, our church has become a family.

We recently met to decide the fate of our endeavor. Would we renew the lease and continue? Or end the lease and move on? Exhausted, I wanted to leave. I’ve seen little of churches to recommend them to me. I’ve seen little of Christianity that I like.  I wanted to walk away. I couldn’t answer why I would make my children come with me to a place so flawed and broken in its search for truth.

We decided to keep our church’s doors open. Not because of what we’ve done so well, but because of what we want to do better. Through our excruciating meetings where we decided the fate of our church, I was reminded, why every Sunday I struggle to put tights on my daughter and fight against the current of the baby’s naptime while trying to listen to the sermon. Not because we are doing everything right, or because we have all the answers, but because I’m still seeking.

In Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments she makes a pointed observation about an old family friend, who became a rabbi: “He’s looking for a way to put his life together, and he’s got no equipment with which to do it. So he turned religious. It’s a mark of how lost he is, not how found he is…” I believe the same thing about myself. I don’t go to church because I am found, but because how profoundly lost I am. It’s a place where I bring my questions, where I bring my doubt, my uncertainty, and where I struggle with morality and purpose.

So, some days I don’t know why I take my children to church—force of habit, tradition, the fact that my husband is the treasurer? Sometimes I don’t go. I keep everyone at home and we eat donuts and nap, and commune with one another. But other days, I do know, I know that we are going not for the lessons that I hope they learn, but for the questions I hope they will one day learn to ask.

Lyz Lenz is a mother of two, writer, and lover of crime shows. Her writing has been published in the New York Time’s Motherlode, The Toast, The Hairpin, the Huffington Post and on her own site

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Friday Morning Sing

Friday Morning Sing


Friday Morning Sing-1I have heard and forgotten a lot of sermons in my life, but one has stuck.  It was about the power of the Sabbath in modern times, and how dividing our lives into sevenths was an old but effective strategy for keeping life manageable.  The pastor asserted that seven days was essentially the Goldilocks of life rhythms—enough time to fit in competing priorities, but not so much time that procrastination flourishes.

Thinking about the Sabbath as not just a single day for rest but a measurement for balancing life has been especially helpful to me in these early years of motherhood.  While a given day may not provide the time I need for a certain priority, each week provides windows of opportunity for the things that matter most.  There is time for work and play. Time for family and friends.  Time for thinking and action.  Time for togetherness and solitude.  Time for exercise and, yes, even time for rest.   Weekly calibration and accountability help me make sure I’m never too far out of balance in any one area.

Fridays are an important part of my weekly cycle.  There are all the obvious reasons to love Fridays—the looming promise of the weekend, the salty popcorn that accompanies movie night, the ability to stay up late because it isn’t essential to set an alarm for the next morning. In addition to all this, Fridays also provide my weekly dose of singing.

Every Friday morning the children at my son’s school meet first thing to raise their voices in song.  Parents and siblings sit scattered amongst the children and clustered on the fringes as Mary K strums her guitar or plays the piano.

The songs range from silly (“I like bananas because they have no bones”) to serious (“Question anyone who tells you who you should hate”).  There are songs about pizza and songs about making a difference with peace and compassion.  There are lyrics that are nonsense and lyrics that capture great truths.  The kids sing songs that honor nature and life and the power of intention alongside songs about betting on the ponies.

When the kids sing about a twig on a branch and a branch on a limb and a limb on a tree … I ride a wave of nostalgia back to summers spent singing camp songs of my own.  When the kids sing about the power of light in darkness I am filled with hope for the future and comforted by the promise of a new generation.  Mostly, when they raise their pitchy little voices I am filled with joy. Hearing a group of children sing with gusto and watching them sway while they claim to be “feelin’ groovy” is just so much fun.

At the end of each Friday Morning Sing session, the kids are sent off to their classes with a few rounds of “Happy Trails.”  It is the perfect song to capture the promise of another respite to come. Another time to gather, to rest, to acknowledge truths big (we can make a difference) and small (bananas do not have a skeletal system).

It is the promise to meet again for this Sabbath of sorts.

Photo by Suesan Henderson

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Of Princesses and Queens

Of Princesses and Queens

By Campbell C. Hoffman

0826131538cRenee and I make our way through JoAnne’s Fabrics, pushing our shopping cart through the Halloween displays and aisles filled with scrapbook supplies. Griffin is with us, too, giving me that toothy grin from his perch wrapped around my belly in a carrier. Today, we’re on a mission. Renee is starting preschool, and kids are given a blue school bag meant to last through swapping of art projects and important papers, mittens and hats and library notices. They are encouraged to make this bag their own by decorating it, also helping kids recognize their blue bag hanging with all the other blue bags in the line of cubbies. Two years ago, when Grant first began school, he picked out patches for me to iron on. Now it’s Renee’s turn.

“I want sparkles!” she has told me, numerous times now. Each time, I’ve smiled and told her we’ll see what we can find.  I’m not much of a sparkles girl. I cringe a little at the thought of sparkles that will brush off of the bag, leaving trails of pixie dust in our wake. But this child leading our shopping cart, my little girl-smushed-between-two-boys, is a sparkles girl. If it’s shiny and bright, she’ll take it. At my mother’s house she has a special stash of cast-off costume jewelry.  She likes the weight of the gold around her neck, the twinkle as it shifts in the sunlight.  At her friends’ houses, she knows where to find the plastic high heels, and she won’t take them off until it is time to go home. Sometimes I think she wants to be a princess.

The thing is: I don’t want her to be a princess. I want her to be a queen. Queens, who actually rule the kingdom, and have power—female power. Doesn’t she know she can have the strength of a queen, and not just the fluff of a princess?

I may not be a sparkles gal, but I never want Renee to think that she can’t be one. I want her to have her own style, find her own skin and be comfortable in it. And that starts with me.

I’ve inherited much from my mother, and one quirk that runs thick is her knack for editing children’s books while reading aloud.  Oh, I’m sure most parents do this on some level, but usually it’s because it’s a bit too long. Her editing had more to do with content, often with a sociological bent. In this house, we like a book from the Little Golden collection The Good Humor Man written in the 1950s.  There is a part in the book where the Good Humor man is ringing his bell, calling everyone out for ice cream, and “mothers leave their kitchens, and the daddies leave their lawn mowers” as they run to greet the good humor man. But every other time, I switch it up, and stick the daddies in the kitchens and the mommies out there getting some fresh air cutting the grass.

At first, the kids just thought this was funny. Grant, especially, is pretty keen on the memorized words of a book, and doesn’t like the narrative to stray from what he knows is on the page. So he would laugh, and correct me. But as I’ve continued in my madness, we’ve had conversations about this: about the daddies and the mommies and all the things that both can do. Because as silly as it is, this one little line of an old book, I want my kids to hear: you each, boy and girl, can chose to do anything, be anything.

As much as I want to show Renee that she can be a strong girl who doesn’t need to be rescued by any prince, I want Grant and Griffin to know that they don’t have to be princes. They don’t have to fall under any particular constraint of how to be a boy. This summer, as we traded in sneakers for flip-flops, Renee asked me to paint her toenails like mine.  I said yes, of course, and sat her on the lid of the toilet, cupping her chubby feet in my hands as I carefully stroked out purple to match my toes. It didn’t take long before Grant decided he wanted his toenails painted, too.  How much do I really believe what I’ve been telling these kids?  If I am adamant that Renee have every opportunity to try on life, than shouldn’t I offer it equally to her brother?

So, yes, I painted Grant’s toenails, too. I want him to know he has choices. He is one of only a few boys in his gymnastics class, and his best friend at school is a girl. Grant sees the masculine physicality of his dad wrapped up with the tender love he gives so freely.  A man who is not afraid to declare his love, and speaks these words often.  But he shows it, too: in the way that he serves this family, every day working hard out in the world, and then coming home, to wrestle, play catch, to wash the dishes and fold laundry.  Because that’s how it is in this house — girl, boy, man, woman — we all pitch in.  We all bring something to the table; it’s not divided down the gender line.

Sometimes I feel this overwhelming pressure to understand my own sense of being a woman in order to parent through this well.  To make peace with the choices I’ve made, and thankful that I have choices.  To recognize what it is that I bring to this table, and celebrate it, too.  I want them to see me work hard, and to watch me enjoy the benefit of doing just that.  My kids are still young.  They have years to decide how they want to be, male and female.  They will try on different costumes, versions of gender, maybe find one that fits better than the others.  But I see it as my job to make sure that they are offered all of those outfits.  I guess that means that I can’t take the princess dress out of the closet, but I will make sure that the queen is in there, too.

Later that evening, I stood over the kitchen table smoothing the iron over the blue school bags, attaching the chosen patches. Her name is bold in white letters, bordered with orange flowers and silver stars underneath. There are butterflies on the front of the bag, and flip-flops on the side. The American Flag in heart shape is there, too, for good measure.  I smile, because I see her in these decorations, and though secretly I’m glad there is nothing sparkly on this bag, ultimately I know that it was her choice, not mine. Queens can wear sparkles, too, you know.

Campbell C. Hoffman can be found with her carpenter-husband on a trail in Southeast Pennsylvania, encouraging (read: begging) her three kids to keep hiking. When she is not hiking, she is on another adventure not altogether different: motherhood. Sometimes she writes about it here:

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Alma Mater

Alma Mater

By Kory Stamper

fall2007_stamperMy eldest daughter first made herself known to my husband and me in the usual way—with a 11:00 p.m. run to the store for yet another pregnancy test, because the first three were totally, totally wrong, I was just sure of it.

I had to be sure of it—I was twenty-one and finishing my last year of college when I became pregnant. My last year at a women’s college. At a radically and notoriously feminist women’s college where my husband is still, to this day, uncomfortable walking around because the students glare at him for the offense that his XY chromosomal pair brings them.

My visit to the school infirmary gave me a taste of what I was in for as a pregnant student. The doctor just barely kept his tsk-tsking in check as told me he could “arrange things” here at the school, if I preferred.

“You guys deliver babies here?”

His eyebrows kissed his hairline. “Do you mean you’re going to carry the baby to term?”

“That had been my plan, yes.”

“Oh. Well, then, you’ll need a referral. We don’t handle maternal care. It’s not really something that comes up often.” He gave me a significant look and would have waggled a finger at me if he hadn’t been holding my medical chart. I walked the half-mile back to the campus center feeling like Hester Prynne.

After my first prenatal appointment with an off-campus obstetrician, where we determined that, yes, the six pregnancy tests I had taken were in fact all correct, I began alerting my professors and my adviser. My art professor was nonplussed when I asked if I’d be okay using the materials for class. “Sure,” he breezed. “Just don’t lick any of the paints or snort the charcoal.” He then told me to go to the faculty gallery to see his wife’s nude self-portraits done throughout her pregnancy. I didn’t think my stomach was up for it.

After I made my announcement, my dance professor acted as if I was going to split into four pieces immediately. “Well, be careful,” he admonished. “If you need to rest for any reason during class, then rest.” He eyed me skeptically. “Your doctor said the dancing was okay? Really?”

I assured him it was, because the OB had assured me it was. “Nothing like backflips,” she had grunted, “but sure, a regular dance class is fine.” I think I was about seven weeks along when we began our first flying flip-kicks in class.

I was most nervous about telling my adviser, who had taken great pains to work with me on a possible thesis topic (a near impossibility in my interdisciplinary major) and felt I would be a great candidate for grad school. I sat in his subterranean office, hemming and hawing, and finally said, “Well, I have decided not to do the thesis. Or grad school. Because, um, I’m pregnant.”

His face hung open in surprise for a few seconds. I cringed. “That’s great!” he bellowed. “Congratulations! Kids are great! You’ll see—much better than grad school.” He grew avuncular. “You know, kids are really what’s important, none of this stuff.” I floated up the stairs, lightheaded with relief and morning sickness.

*   *   *

Then I called my insurance company. You’d think I would have known better.

Because I was a married student, I had my college’s health insurance plan for independent students. Thirty minutes on hold and a five-minute conversation with my helpful insurance representative told me that the college’s plan didn’t offer maternity care, but the birth itself could be covered under a surgical benefit. The surgical benefit was $2,000 with a $750 deductible; anything over that amount was my responsibility. There was no prenatal coverage. There was no flexibility. Thank you for choosing Acme Collegiate Health.

This news almost literally floored me; I was dizzy when I headed out for class. The plan was mandatory for all students and certainly not cheap (not, at least, for a college student). Wasn’t this very situation—an unexpected medical event—the reason I had been required to buy health insurance? The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. If I had mixed feelings about being pregnant before, I sure as shootin’ was gung-ho on my eventual motherhood now.

Being a resourceful woman, I took the logical next step: I approached the president and trustees of my college, all liberated women. Sisterhood! Solidarity!

A week after sending my cordial letter, asking what the hell was up with the health care I was being offered, I received a nice note from the president’s office explaining that I should take this up with the dean of students. It wasn’t up to the president’s office to handle student health care.

Fair enough; I redirected my note. It was answered with a slightly snippy letter informing me that the college had no control over the benefits offered by the insurance company they contracted with and that, statistically, maternity care is not necessary among the undergraduate population. If I was having medical difficulties, perhaps I should take a leave of absence.

I read the note while researching a paper between classes. I closed my eyes and began to breathe deeply to calm myself. Then I thought, Wait a minute, why should I be calm? I used my centering breath to scream a string of profanities that got me forcibly ejected from the library.

I suppose that during the early years of women’s education, a woman in my delicate state would simply leave campus for the duration of her confinement, after which she’d either become the single-parent outcast of her town or she’d rematriculate later, when family (or a nanny) could watch the kids. That changed in the 1960s, when the introduction of the birth control pill meant more women were joining the work force and starting their families later in life. Though my college archives say nothing on the subject, comments from some of my older professors led me to believe that I was probably the first visibly pregnant undergraduate on campus in modern memory. Irritatingly enough, I just wasn’t going away.

One of the things my alma mater taught me was that women can buck the system. I had sat through class after class encouraging me to push back, rough ’em up, play tough. Liberated women were strong, rabble-rousers, hell on roller skates.

Well, then. Since I didn’t consider a normal pregnancy to be a medical difficulty, and I had a hard time believing that a women’s college was so lacking in women’s health care, I did a very liberated thing: I filed a grievance with the state claiming that my medical coverage was inadequate according to state law. A copy of the grievance wended its way to the college offices, and suddenly my calls and letters went unanswered. The state gave me Medicare/Medicaid. The school administration gave me the cold shoulder.

*   *   *

While my husband couldn’t be more delighted with our baby, my adviser couldn’t be more encouraging, and my older friends couldn’t be more helpful during those months of term papers and indigestion, trouble with my fellow students started brewing when I began to show in the spring. Suddenly every third woman on campus was handing me a leaflet about my reproductive rights, telling me I had a choice, you know, I had the right to choose, and I needed to be, you know, completely and totally informed about my rights. None of my peers seemed to believe that I had already (rather clearly) made a choice. No one seemed to believe that I would choose this bizarre burgeoning protoplasm over grad school, over a job in New York City, over all the “liberated woman” stuff. In their eyes, my early marriage just made me odd; my pregnancy made me stupid. My classmates sneered at me in public and told me I was crazy for wasting my education. And then they and their girlfriends wanted to touch my belly.

Somewhere between the school’s disbelief that pregnancy was a fairly normal occurrence in women of childbearing age, and the constant encouragement of my peers to make an informed choice, I snapped. It began with the T-shirts. I got as far as purchasing fabric paint and some XXXL shirts and sketching out my designs while waiting for art history slides to cue.

Exercising My Right to Choose.

Actively Supporting the Patriarchy.

Another Misogynist Pig in the Oven.

I’m With Over-Educated (with a big arrow pointing from my huge gut up at my smiling face).

Since so many people were treating my pregnancy like a disease, I acted like an invalid. I snuck into my old dorm and claimed the common room between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. every day for a nap, snoring loudly and obscenely. I took the freight elevator up one flight of stairs. I took up several desks and starting lying on the floor during one of my foreign-language classes.

When my belly button disappeared, I rolled my t-shirt up so everyone could see.

In April, campus tours were taking place and I happened to be leaving an academic building as a group dripping in furs and jewelry headed my way. The student tour leader saw me and, sensing trouble, abruptly steered the group in the opposite direction. I feigned sudden labor, very loudly.

Though most of my classmates were private about their disdain for my situation, others fought my estrogen-fueled fire with fire. About three weeks before finals and one month before I was due, I was the thinly veiled subject of a long letter in the school newspaper about population growth and our duty to protect the planet by adopting children instead of squeezing out our own (assuming that anyone was so deluded as to even want kids). The article finished by noting that the days of women being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen were over.

I went home that night and told my husband that women being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen was just so over. He would have to be the pregnant one tonight, baby.

*   *   *

Graduation arrived at last, ninety-five degrees with 180 percent humidity. Many of my fellow graduates lounged around in bikinis and miniskirts before the ceremony. I was blanketed in a long white earth-mama dress and sensible black flats, all topped with a heavy black graduation gown that trailed in the back and was knee-length in the front. I looked like a fat penguin in a funny hat.

Our commencement speaker was Anna Quindlen. Depending on which of the graduates you ask, she either told us that women shouldn’t abandon family for their careers, or told us that women shouldn’t have families so they could have a career. Personally, I don’t remember. I do remember my hugely swollen feet, and sweating a lot, and thinking, “If I had gone on the 5K graduation run this morning, I could be in an air-conditioned hospital room watching cartoons right now.” My name was called, and I waddled up to the stage where I delivered my parting shot: I received my diploma barefoot and pregnant. I would have taken the kitchen stove with me if it weren’t so big.

The school president handed me my diploma, wide-eyed and looking down at my belly (which was invading her personal space). On the way back to my seat, I was heckled by one of my classmates’ parents. “Forget something?” he sneered—whether he was talking about my shoes or my birth control, I can’t say. I smiled broadly and waved my diploma at him. “No, not at all, sir.”

On the plane ride back to their house, my parents sat next to a lovely gentleman who also attended the graduation. They chatted about the ceremony for a bit, and then he said, “Oh, did you see that pregnant girl? My God.”

My parents paused. “Actually,” my father said, with no small amount of irritation, I am sure, “that was our daughter.”

The gentleman stared for a moment, then nodded sympathetically. “Well, it happens in the best of families.”

Once my diploma was in hand and I was out the door, I shrugged off the institutional kerfuffle; it was irritating and frustrating and not particularly pleasant, but it was all water under the bridge. That is, until I started getting the solicitation mail. My alma mater wrote often and, like an enterprising cousin with no tact, asked me for lots of money. I had written the fundraising office twice asking them to remove me from the solicitation list. For a long time I continued to get the sunny pleas for moolah.

Then came the legacy mailing. It informed me that I could start paying my daughter’s tuition by setting up a legacy fund in her name. The principal would go into a general scholarship fund and I would get hefty dividends which I could save for my dear daughter’s education (at my alma mater, of course). After all, my alma mater was not just an education, it was a family tradition.

It was the only mailing I responded to. I sent in a copy of my graduation picture, with the college president goggling at my beach-ball belly, and scrawled underneath of the picture, “No thanks. You couldn’t take care of her the first time she was there.”

*   *   *

In the heat of the controversy, it had been easy to forget that all my fellow graduates who had thought I was out of my gourd were twenty-two themselves and either taking batteries of standardized tests to get into a good grad program or interviewing with big companies where the senior management did not agree that make-up and pantyhose were socially acceptable forms of female denigration.

And if none of those things came into play—even if it wasn’t fear or envy that propelled the criticism, but truly disdain or disgust—is that necessarily a bad thing? We chose a women’s college because we valued women’s minds and women’s voices, and we wanted to be in a place that took all our opinions seriously. In the end, my pregnancy was another discussion point, and that’s what I agreed to when I signed up to go there, a place where the voice of every woman—no matter how crazy, or pregnant—could be heard.

These days, most of my classmates are married or partnered, most have children under three, and most still shake their head at me—though now it tends to be more in understanding and less in consternation. None of us believes that we’re any less feminist for having admitted the necessity of sperm in the propagation of the species. Some of us have even admitted to enjoying the company of the oppressor. If there was tension because of my pregnancy, it’s gone now. The sisterhood is intact and packing a kick-ass diaper bag.

Kory Stamper is an editor with Merriam-Webster, Inc., and she has written for the Chicago Tribune and the Guardian. She blogs at harm·less drudg·ery.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

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Hansel and Regrettal

Hansel and Regrettal

By Sara Levine

winter2010_levineOne day the old witch hobbled out of her gingerbread house and found a boy and girl standing at the lollipop gate, staring at the colored icing and the peppermint candies studding the window shutters. Hungry and dirty, they’d no doubt been wandering in the woods for days. Good, the witch thought, who was half-starved herself. She gave them a moment to take in her appearance: the red eyes, the bulbous nose, the hump. The girl shrunk a little. The boy’s attention was fixed on the house.

“What’s it made of?” he asked.

“Sugar and spice and everything nice,” she answered.

“Real sugar?” the girl replied. “Or corn syrup?”

“Children, you must be starving! Break off a piece of the window!”

But the children stood with their hands in their pockets.

“Pry a shingle from the roof,” she said. “Do you like marzipan?”

They shook their heads. They’d never tried it.

“Poor children! Come in, come in.”

She sat them down at her table and offered them pancakes, caramel apples, jelly doughnuts. They wouldn’t touch any of it. This one was bad for the heart, they explained; that was packed with calories; those looked good but weren’t what their stepmother called “growing food.”

“Do you eat this food yourself, Old Mother?” Gretel asked, her forehead creased with worry, as the witch brought out a nutmeg maple cream pie.

“Not very much,” she answered, thinking of the tender morsels children made. “But I make sweets for the children who pass through the forest.”

“They must have terrible teeth,” Hansel said.

Prig! thought the witch. Probably their muscles had been subjected to long, vigorous exercise, and their meat would be stringy and tough.

“My little ones, you’ve got to eat something.”

The children looked doubtfully around the cottage. “Do you have any purslane?” Hansel asked at last.

Oh, to hell with fattening them. She’d eat them as they were. You take what comes to you; you appreciate; you don’t complain.

“Children, go and sit on the bread paddle,” she said, “and tell me if the oven feels hot enough to put the bread in.”

They looked at her warily. “We never eat white flour,” the girl said. “It has a higher glycemic index…”

“All I’ve offered, and you won’t help me with one little chore?” the witch said.

“But we don’t know a thing about ovens,” Gretel said. “When you heat food over 116 degrees, you lose the nutrient value.”

“Actually,” Hansel said, “enzymes degrade at a temperature of 106 degrees. That’s why Stepmother prefers raw food.”

The witch rolled her eyes up to the meringue-covered ceiling. These awful, difficult children! She could bake them for an hour, and they’d still be tough.

“Listen,” she said, “if you round the house and head west you will come to a patch of blueberry bushes you can eat from.”

The children stood, their faces flooded with relief. They thanked the old woman and bounded out the cottage door.

Goodbye, tainted meat, the witch thought. Only after she closed her graham cracker door did she remember the ogre. His house was a mile from the berry patch, and he loved nothing more than to gobble up wandering children. He’d been a good neighbor these last three or four hundred years. Should she warn him about the meat? The witch had hobbled as far as the gumdrop doormat when she stopped herself. Probably she was over-reacting.

Brain, Child (Winter 2010)

Sara Levine is the author of the novel Treasure Island!!! and the short story collection Short Dark Oracles. You can read more about her at

Guilt Trip Into the Woods

Guilt Trip Into the Woods

By Martha Nichols

spring2010_nicholsLast summer, my husband and I wrestled with where to take our seven-year-old son for vacation: Someplace wild and natural? Or a few days in New York City? Part of me longed to spend a week at the beach; we could turn off the computers, we could spend all day outside, we could commune with nature like poets or saints, or at least wiggle free of the media snake for a few hours. It would be good for our son, Nick, I told myself dutifully, even if I knew he’d rather listen to my iPod.

The Big Apple won out. We arrived in New York on a warm July day and headed straight to Times Square after dinner. Staring up at the ten-story movie ads, scrolling numbers, and cartoon characters, Nick danced as if the sidewalk were on fire. He gazed in wonder, like all the other tourists, many sitting in lawn chairs on one closed section of Broadway. He begged to go back to Times Square every night, and we did. My husband and I loved it, too, and more surprisingly, we loved our son’s response.

Maybe I was wrong to choose the asphalt jungle over the forest primeval. I’d always assumed that nature was better for my child than anything else. Oceans: beautiful, good. Giant M&M’s leaping on flat-panel displays: ugly, evil. But after witnessing Nick’s delight in Times Square, I began to feel not so much wrong as barraged by a dire message at every turn: Your child is being damaged by a lack of contact with nature. If you don’t fix it now, he will turn fat and fearful; he’ll be rudderless, adrift in a sea of enervating boredom.

My son is not a glassy-eyed blob tethered to a screen. He’s an enthusiastic dynamo, and his love of manga and anime and digital cameras and computer games and PowerPoint to create his own stories has made me question if nature has become his generation’s version of castor oil. Is it really true that Nick and all other children are in a state of natural crisis? Or is this just another round of Oldsters versus Youngsters, with boomer oldsters re-claiming a familiar refrain? These kids today are going to hell in a hand basket.

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Front and center in the movement to call kids back to nature is a book by journalist Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods. Published in 2005, it was followed by an expanded paperback edition in 2008. That same year Louv received the Audubon Medal for, in the words of the National Audubon Society’s website, “sounding the alarm about the health and societal costs of children’s isolation from the natural world.” Louv is now the chairman of the Children & Nature Network, an organization that he co-founded in 2006 and which was sparked by his book. The nonprofit based in Santa Fe, with its “news service and portal” website, is devoted to promoting nature programs around the country and kicky slogans like “No Child Left Inside.”

Louv’s manifesto is deceptively calm in its early sections, almost sad, as if he knows he needs to reel in skeptics like me. In it, he argues that children are rapidly losing the free-roaming experience of outdoor play. Kids now know a lot about global warming, but few can name what birds they see in their own backyards. They’d rather stay inside, watching nature on TV, and for Louv, that’s a disaster.

His crusade is far from a lonely one. Since the publication of Last Child in the Woods, a mini-boomlet of nature activity books has appeared, including I Love Dirt!, Nature’s Playground, and The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids. The Children & Nature Network promotes everything from the Children in Nature Action Plan created by the National Park Service to learning gardens in Buffalo schools. (According to the website, “C&NN has identified over sixty regions that have either launched or are assembling grassroots campaigns to connect children with nature.”) Each book and campaign and after-school program urges parents to expose their kids to the great outdoors; each tap-taps away, creating yet another anxious drumbeat, hectoring us about what we’re doing wrong.

No parent believes kids should sit in front of a computer 24/7.  But I can’t help but feel irked by the hyperbole in statements like, “To take nature and natural play away from children may be tantamount to withholding oxygen.” And I object strongly to the assumptions behind Louv’s message. As a feminist and white adoptive mom of an Asian son, I’m disturbed by the belief that what’s “natural” is always best for kids. This feels like ’60s nostalgia—the kind that wishes women’s liberation and the Internet hadn’t ever come along to mess things up.

In addition, the back-to-nature movement demonizes its perceived enemy—the siren song of high-tech leisure options—to an unrealistic degree. A number of studies funded since 2006 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation have found that children’s involvement with digital media is not just passive and addictive. Whether they’re creating photo collages and videos, hip-hop mixes, blogging their own stories, or modifying the rules of video games, kids can become empowered creators online. They’re not only sexting and aping celebrities.

The more I examine the work of Louv and his brethren, the less I’m persuaded that when boomers share stories of magical childhood times in a tree, “their cultural, political, and religious walls come tumbling down” as he claims. I just don’t believe that wonder can be reduced to one essential experience any more than motherhood can. And perhaps most disturbing for environmentalist moms and dads, I’m discovering that the nature movement—green and forward-thinking as it appears at first blush—looks an awful lot like a conservative message cloaked with some liberal fig leaves.

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Last Child in the Woods isn’t telling a new story, but at the beat-me-whip-me level it’s an undeniably compelling one. Louv covers plenty of well-documented bad news, including the rise in childhood obesity, ADHD diagnoses, and electronic addiction.

Like most of my parent peers, I feel guilty—a lot. Every morning, when there’s barely enough caffeine in my system to cope, NPR seems to pummel me with stories about why our multi-tasking, Internet-chained pace isn’t good for kids.

“Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” a study released by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in January, presents an impressive array of data to demonstrate just how media-immersed children have become. Most shocking finding: Kids consume media an average of seven hours and thirty-eight minutes a day, “almost the amount of time most adults spend at work each day,” writes Victoria Rideout and her co-authors, “except that young people use media seven days a week instead of five.”

Whether nature is the only solution is the question.

I’m certainly on board when Louv says we need to teach children to be responsible stewards of the Earth because of the daunting environmental issues before us. He takes some of his best shots at gray-haired groups like the Sierra Club that until recently have done little to reach out to children, assuming kids are “extraneous to the serious adult work of saving the world.” He’s sharply critical of condo associations and other planned communities that don’t allow kids to stray from manicured paths or playgrounds, let alone construct tree houses in “off-limits” areas. Louv charts how suburban open space has both shrunk and become overly protected—what he calls “The Criminalization of Natural Play.” A 2002 U.S. Department of Agriculture report predicts that from 1982 to 2022, for example, forest acreage will decline by fifty percent.

Louv, a former columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, presents reams of research. He throws in caveats, too. “Like many parents,” he admits on page one, “I do tend to romanticize my own childhood.” Then comes the hook: “Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging, and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact.”

His simplest arguments for how to address this “radical change” in nature awareness are the most profound. Kids don’t need to explore pristine wilderness; big cities include plenty of living things, too. He says children are often more captivated by “the mysteries of the ravine at the end of the cul de sac” than by a trip to the Grand Canyon. Louv’s “special place” as a child “was a ditch,” he writes, “dark with mystery, lined with grapevine swings, elms, and tangled bramble.”

It’s an appealing vision, one that doesn’t require adult direction or expensive programs. Louv’s personal stories are evocative, and I’m convinced his two sons benefited from fishing with their dad or scrabbling up desert canyons. But his tone can quickly shift to the annoyingly proscriptive. He’s got a mountain range of advice for parents:

Encourage your child to get to know a ten-square-yard area at the edge of a field, pond, or pesticide-free garden…. Together, keep a journal; encourage your child to describe, in words and pictures, that tattered bumblebee staggering across autumn leaves…. Later, at home, she can color the drawings and press a flower between the pages….

It sounds so orderly, so PC (don’t forget that “pesticide-free garden” for bringing the bugs to your kids rather than one of those dubious ditches from the 1950s). It’s like a lavishly illustrated picture book marketed to parents rather than kids: Mom and toddler study leaves together or share a hot chocolate after exploring the woods.

The thing is, I’m his audience. I, too, climbed the big pine tree in our backyard when I was a kid; my favorite book for years was The Golden Treasury of Natural History. I loved our late-night family trips across the Mojave Desert, Dad still worried our clunker Dodge would overheat, me in my undies, whipped by hot wind through the open windows. Initially I was drawn to Louv’s call for immersion in the natural world. Yet long before I finished Last Child in the Woods, I wanted to chuck it across the room.

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When I think about what my son would do with such nature activities, I have to laugh. He’s never been one to draw daisies in a journal if I suggest it. Instead he’d sketch a jousting tournament or a new comic strip, no matter how much I burble about the veins of a leaf. Or he’d rip the leaf apart—which for Louv might be just the ticket for a young naturalist—except that what fascinates Nick is the landscape inside his own head.

Of course some children enjoy pressing flowers. My son’s idiosyncrasies only illustrate that kids are passionate about a variety of things. But as with so many journalistic trend stories, Louv employs a largely anecdotal approach to make a bigger claim: that all children need nature—and if they don’t get the version he prescribes, they will be less joyful and alive.

Louv and fellow believers like Todd Christopher, author of The Green Hour, present themselves as valiant nature warriors facing a horde of technology Visigoths. What’s needed is nothing less than a new movement “to heal the separation of childhood and nature,” as Christopher writes in his preface. His idea is that families should spend at least one hour a day outside. On his own website, Christopher describes himself as co-founder of the National Wildlife Federation’s Green Hour campaign and its former director of online media (The Green Hour got its start as a website). The National Wildlife Federation is also home to magazines like Ranger Rick and Your Big Backyard.

The Green Hour is an attractively designed activity book stocked with nature facts. The activities themselves—make your own bird feeder, observe the clouds—are nothing new. What is new is the polemical introduction. The intended audience seems to be hypothetical moms who’ve only seen trees on TV. The activity instructions are written for both parents and children, the assumption being that adults should participate and shepherd things along. Yet the language has a grade-school science rah-rah tone. Lines like “Did You Know? Green leaves get their color from a pigment called chlorophyll” feel patronizing to me.

The Green Hour, like Last Child in the Woods, manages to up the anxiety level for parents while exhorting us to get over our fears of poison ivy and ticks. In “the world that flashes by on the screen of a television, computer, or video game,” Christopher writes, “the real danger … lies in how quickly children can be seduced into passivity and inactivity, their senses bombarded, overwhelmed, and ultimately diminished. Most sadly, it is the sense of wonder that seems to be first to go.”

Based on the Kaiser studies, it’s clear that children are immersed in media at record rates. But the fear this engenders in baby boomer breasts and the impassioned attacks it inspires go unexamined by Christopher or Louv. It’s just as easy to become a worried, hovering parent who nags kids to enjoy nature as it is to be the stereotypical achievement-oriented “indoor” helicopter. The only difference is the focus.

Parents must communicate their own joy and enthusiasm about nature to children, Louv maintains. To calm us competitive types, he argues against perfectionism in teaching nature to kids. A fellow parent, he’s even sympathetic: “Parents already feel besieged by the difficulty of balancing work and family life. Understandably, they may resist the idea of adding any to-dos to their long list of chores.”

Yet some parents simply may not enjoy camping or mucking in the garden or a “green hour.” Maybe we’re into updating our status lines with five hundred digital friends. Bookworms like me can read nature books to our kids (another Louv-approved activity), but the message here is that if you don’t like such nature-centric activities, you’d better ask yourself why and get religion.

“[T]he generations do not go to nature to find safety or justice,” Louv writes breathlessly at one point. “They go to find beauty.” I read this as an aesthetic choice, not an intrinsic truth. Many early religions were undoubtedly inspired by the natural elements at their wildest, and pulpits and temples around the world link nature with spiritual transcendence. But while awe of nature may go back to our ancestors in caves, “nature” can mean a lot of different things to different people, especially in the twenty-first century. Sure, nature is basic to all humans—and yet cities are basic to humans, too, along with our linguistic abilities and works of art.

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The underlying conservatism of nature believers means they’re so set against technology they often can’t see how to use it to promote their cause. This inevitably pits the generations against each other. Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation, who directs its program on media and health, emphasizes that Kaiser is “simply documenting” media use by children, not pronouncing against it. On the positive side, she told me in a recent interview, “Kids just love media. It’s entertaining; it’s fun; it’s relaxing; it’s soothing. It can expose kids to parts of the world and society that they wouldn’t otherwise see.”

Rideout’s tone is cautious rather than apocalyptic. “Media use can just kind of add up without you really noticing it,” she notes, just like a parent who has been there. The Kaiser study indicates that when parents put a few rules in place, media consumption by kids goes way down. Children with no televisions in their bedrooms watch much less TV, for instance. Media is also defined very broadly by the Kaiser researchers as everything from music and books to video games and TV, which puts the findings in a less grim light.

The point is that parents can influence their children’s choices without rejecting all the media goodies. But nature believers make almost no concessions to technology. They employ the abstinence language of other conservative parenting movements, assuming that saying no is the way to go, and if you don’t say no, your children will be lost forever in the virtual storm. They end up conjuring the same old bogey people: Those kids are out of control! Do you know where your child is tonight? Father knows best.

In some ways, it’s ironic that The Green Hour began on the Web. The book includes only the briefest mentions of using media devices to record nature sounds or a GPS system to play a tracking game. Christopher relegates nature-related websites to supplemental source boxes, separate from his activity text. Even Louv is more enthusiastic about kids using a digital camera to record their experiences outside.

Yet there are positive ways to frame the impact of media on contemporary family life. “In con­trast to the generational tensions that are so often emphasized in the popular media, families do come together around new media to share media and knowledge, play together, and stay involved in each other’s lives,” writes cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito and her co-authors in the white paper “Living and Learning with New Media.” The paper summarizes the findings of the MacArthur-funded Digital Youth Project based on interviews, questionnaires, and observations of hundreds of children and teens. The project findings also appear in their 2009 MIT Press book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out.

Nature evangelists tend to pooh-pooh such alternate interpretations. Rather than acknowledging that there are multiple answers to problems like childhood obesity and boredom, Louv and others view nature as the best solution to a vast array of social ills. Their alarmist language is a signal that the real message is about parental control instead of engaging children on their own terms. A nature journal, for example, might be more enticing if kids could collage pictures and distribute their writing online. Of course that may not sound like the unstructured, free-roaming play Louv holds so dear. But neither do the nature activities in books like The Green Hour. Kids should roam freely, these writers seem to say, but only in parent-approved natural landscapes.

Back-to-nature claims are most suspect when they promote fear of where children go in their heads—or what they’re learning—while immersed in new media. That’s not to say parents should shrug their shoulders at Internet porn. But many digitally inclined educators claim we’ve reached a “profound moment” in the use of media by both children and adults, given that almost anyone can go to a public-library computer to self-publish and distribute content online. Though only a “teeny fraction” of kids are actually doing creative work with media, Rideout notes, “When kids take capabilities into their own hands, it’s thrilling to see the potential.”

Ito’s youthful hangers, messers, and geeks often create their own virtual worlds, be they landscapes with kid-oriented cartoons or new music that few parents can tolerate. Yet such virtual worlds don’t necessarily cause glazed eyeballs, passivity, and an inability to connect with others. Ito describes a case study of anime “fansubbers” who insert English and other subtitles into Japanese cartoons and distribute them online, working solely for the satisfaction it brings to millions of anime fans around the world.

Learning by trial and error is another skill touted as a special benefit of kids playing in the great outdoors. It’s not a stretch, however, to think such tinkering can involve building a backyard fort or fiddling with HTML code. According to Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, gaming and technological expertise in general often give children a sense that “I can solve problems my parents can’t solve—I’m teaching adults how to do things.” Such “self-direction” threatens adult authority; parents back off for the wrong reasons, freaked by the technology. But as Lenhart points out, kids get to fail constructively with video games in ways they aren’t allowed to do in school.

As far back as 1993, David Sobel, a nature advocate and education researcher, had his finger on why kids need retreats away from prying adult eyes. In Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood, Sobel writes that the children in his study “expressed a need for privacy, independence, and self-sufficiency. Through making their own places, children start to carve out a place for themselves in the world.”

It’s possible these special places today are online tree houses, with far more room for messing around than a physical nook. I’d even venture that children may roam through virtual landscapes for the same reasons we used to spend all day outside away from mom and dad, taking bikes down a hill we called “Dead Man’s Curve.”

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Nature believers go beyond saying that immersion in nature will add richness to children’s lives; they also argue that it can be uniquely therapeutic. While it may seem intuitively obvious that kids who play outside are less obese, there’s little hard data to back up claims that nature in itself melts off pounds. Certainly playing outside can raise a child’s physical activity level, give kids more free time, and cut down on TV watching. But whether you need nature to get more exercise or free time is not at all clear.

One especially suspect pseudo-scientific explanation pops up in The Green Hour. In a “Did You Know?” box, Christopher writes, “The negatively charged hydrogen ions in sea spray may be to thank for the happy, relaxed feeling we get at the seashore. Those ions neutralize harmful free radicals in our bodies and help to stabilize our levels of serotonin—a brain chemical associated with sleep and mood.” His source? An article in the Daily Telegraph, a conservative English newspaper, which doesn’t attribute any research for this nugget. Flinging around words like “serotonin” makes it sound valid. Maybe it’s true; maybe it’s snake oil. Some people also believe the thundering waters of Niagara Falls increase one’s libido—so should we keep our underage children out of earshot?

Louv, a more critical synthesizer of research, acknowledges that to date there’s not much empirical evidence for the benefits of nature to children. (To be fair, there isn’t much evidence for technology’s impact on children’s lives, either.) When it comes to nature’s therapeutic effect on kids with ADHD, for example, he notes that the research “is in its infancy, and easily challenged.” Yet that doesn’t stop him from talking about “Nature’s Ritalin” or coining the phrase “nature-deficit disorder.”

The most suggestive studies of nature’s impact on attention in children that Louv cites come from the University of Illinois’s Human-Environment Research Laboratory. In a 2001 study, Andrea Faber Taylor, Frances Kuo, and William Sullivan turned up definite correlations between the time ADD kids spend doing “green activities” and more focused attention afterwards. Yet this study was based on 96 questionnaires filled out by parents, not direct observations of kids by researchers.

In another study, Taylor and her colleagues found that the amount of greenery inner-city Chicago girls can see from their windows makes them more self-disciplined and able to delay gratification longer. (They didn’t find a similar link between green views and self-discipline in boys.) After a two-sentence gloss of the findings, Louv leaps to a more sweeping claim, stating that even such minimal exposure to nature will help a girl “do better in school, handle peer pressure, and avoid dangerous, unhealthy, or problem behaviors.”

Pundits do this all the time, of course, highlighting whatever fits the story. That doesn’t mean Louv’s advocacy is necessarily a cynical manipulation. He clearly cares about his subject. But the problem in political terms is that scarce dollars for enrichment programs flow to topics that get the most hype.

“[T]his ‘get them out to the woods’ movement is at least a century old,” writes Patrick Boyle, editor of Youth Today, in recent e-mail correspondence with me. “[O]rganizations … have been trying to get urban kids out of cities for their physical and mental health for ages. It was the premise of the Boy Scouts of America. It was also a main idea behind the National Youth Administration started by FDR. … There has always been an assumption that this is a good thing, and lots of anecdotes from adults about how much they valued such time as kids. You’d have a hard time measuring the impact of such a thing.”

As Youth Today, a national trade paper about youth services, has been documenting for years, assessing the long-term benefits of any program is dicey. And when Louv praises recent projects like IslandWood in Washington state’s Puget Sound, he doesn’t seem to recognize that a glitzy “outdoor learning center,” underwritten by software magnates, competes for dollars with other youth agencies.

Many would make a case that what kids today need—particularly at-risk kids—is caring adults, whether they’re looking at lizards together, acting in a play, taping videos of their neighborhood, or playing basketball. In fact, there is a growing body of research to support the importance of mentorship through organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters. Martial arts schools also claim some of the same benefits for children as Louv ascribes to nature: self-confidence, self-discipline, a quiet mind. For Louv, however, nature supports all things good, be it finger-painting or meditation.

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There’s no question that modern children have been affected by the lack of open space for play, notes Steven Mintz in Huck’s Raft (2004), a history of childhood in America from colonial times to the present. But Mintz also makes clear that the days of yore weren’t always golden. He opens by contrasting nostalgic notions of Huckleberry Finn dawdling down the Mississippi with author Mark Twain’s “real-life mid-nineteenth-century Hannibal,” which “was anything but a haven of stability and security. It was a place where a quarter of the children died before their first birthday, half before their twenty-first.” Subversive Huck, arguably an icon for natural living with dirty hands, isn’t soothed by nature. As Mintz notes, this fictional boy has been likened by critics to an abused child or at-risk youth; he’s even been called an ADHD sufferer.

Over the course of our country’s history, Mintz says, the biggest shift for children has been “a marked increase in diversity.” That includes an unmatched level of affluence for some, yet a dramatic increase in childhood poverty for others. One of the main myths Mintz debunks “is that childhood is the same for all children, a status transcending class, ethnicity, and gender. In fact, every aspect of childhood is shaped by class,” he writes. This is a far more nuanced interpretation of what’s happening to kids, and the changes may not be all bad.

Today’s nature evangelists like Louv make token nods to economic and cultural differences but mainly in service of helping the underprivileged get the nature faith. Louv knocks the trend toward including “race-relations and other cultural/political programs at camps.” He writes, “These are important discussions in a democracy, but childhood is short.”

Not that short.

Nowhere does the nature faith reveal its retro foundations more than in its avoidance of debates about social change. You could say this is just a matter of values or funding priorities. Nature versus Multiculturalism. But what I find insidious about eco-child talk is its liberal, inclusive guise. Extolling Nature with a capital N reinforces a largely white, privileged value system that doesn’t emphasize kids’ connecting with other people. It effectively turns a whole lot of social and political inequalities invisible.

To believe that nature is an elemental truth is to deny that love can jump across biological or tribal boundaries—that adoptive families, for example, form bonds that are just as natural as those made by sperm and egg. It’s to ignore how mutable identity is for an Asian adoptee like my son or for teens creating MySpace profiles or for immigrant children who exist in different worlds at home and at school. If you follow this thread under the rational-sounding surface of Last Child in the Woods, we’re right back to real women birthin’ babies and the rest of us female workaholics being the reason for “the end of natural experience,” as Louv puts it.

When it comes to gender, there are glaring omissions in Last Child in the Woods. Mintz and countless other social commentators have remarked on the march of women into the work force since the 1970s. Yet in Last Child in the Woods, there’s not one mention of the women’s movement. Louv always refers to “parents.” At times, he mentions two working parents or single parents, but rarely does “mother” appear except in “Mother Nature.”

In a book that’s all about children, this is a telling gap. The particular challenges facing working moms have been excised. It may seem politically correct not to blame women for the loss of those relaxed and playful days of old. But in not naming this social trend and its legacy, Louv skirts a forthright discussion of why family lifestyles have changed. He would never say that working mothers should ditch feminist goals and return home for the sake of their kids. But as with every so-called contemporary parenting crisis, the usual suspects are left holding the bag.

Take stranger danger. “Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young,” Louv exhorts. “Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature.”

Fear, worry, hovering—when these labels are leveled at “parents,” they’re not very subtle code for female. Leaving aside the question of whether little girls and boys felt the same degree of freedom in the ’50s and ’60s, how we’re supposed to stop feeling anxious when young children are out on their own is never really explained.

For parents who need more time with children to spur them towards nature, Louv offers this bromide: “Sympathetic employers can help.” Right. Then he adds, in an almost offhand way, that some parents opt to stay at home to help their kids, “either with home businesses or in the traditional stay-at-home role.” Again, just who those parents are, and whether they have the economic means to live by a canyon or near the woods or even want a suburban existence that implies a long commute, remains unexplored.

Any form of intensive-parenting advice—and Last Child in the Woods is as intensive as it gets—comes down to a lot of work on the part of adults. These days, both moms and dads are putting in the hours. But ignoring the fact that women do the majority of childcare, and by extension much of the staring at stars and nature journaling, doesn’t make the inequity go away. And praising the benefits of kids’ roaming outside on their own yet shaking a fearful finger at the virtual worlds those kids might also want to explore strikes me as one whopping contradiction.

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“Girls have really taken to opportunities to being creative online,” says Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Research Center. She and other observers note that teens are energized by finding an audience online without adult gatekeepers. “It’s a really powerful incentive to create,” Lenhart says, “to have their words heard in a public space.”

“I don’t think that the Internet is such an evil it needs to be doled out in tiny bites,” she adds. “We need to be careful about expecting children to be just like we were. Different doesn’t necessarily mean bad.”

For Louv, though, childhood is broken and needs to be fixed. Nature is bedrock reality, our “biophilia” is hard-wired, and “the child in nature is an endangered species.” The societies we construct are chump change compared to Mother Earth. Louv quotes one oceanographer as saying, “Reality is the final authority; reality is what’s going on out there, not what’s in your mind or on your computer screen.”

For me, a ’70s girl who fantasized about Paris and London, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and gender-bending, reality in this reductive sense was never the final authority. As a kid, I spent plenty of time wandering the California hills above my suburban tract. But my brother and I also holed up at home on many summer afternoons, taping our own science-fiction radio show. The script included immortal lines like “We are the Phabians from the Planet Phabia! Third planet from our star!”

Louv would nod his head in earnest approbation; we were indulging in unstructured play. But I think he’d also say the hills got our creative juices flowing, when in reality we were more influenced by Star Trek re-runs and David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

In my case, reading The Lord of the Rings was a signal event, too, one I remember far more vividly than camping trips. Louv also extols J.R.R. Tolkien’s Rings saga; he rightly notes that Tolkien’s vision was driven by the devastation of two world wars and the Oxford don’s mourning for the disappearing English countryside. Yet for Louv, the trilogy’s main value is in its nature descriptions.

Personally, I never cared much about the Hobbits or their simple way of life. It was the epic battle between good and evil, that very small hero walking right up the slopes of Mount Doom. It was the immortal Elves I loved; yes, they lived in magical trees or other super-saturated natural landscapes, but these were the imaginary realms of Maxfield Parrish and the Pre-Raphaelites, not of John Muir or Foxfire Book hippies.

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There’s nothing like an actual living, breathing child to bring a parent up short, to turn what seems to be the best advice in the world into mush. Standing in Times Square that warm July night, I knew my city mouse was thrilled by life.

I see many good reasons for worrying about pollution, shrinking wilderness areas, and corporate control of media. But the back-to-nature movement, like all parenting movements, has political and social ramifications. Whether conservatives are wearing pinstripes or all-natural fabrics, the bottom line is that they don’t want the world to change. The proof is in the way they dismiss anyone with a different take, especially the next generation of storytellers, those darn kids who aren’t interested in describing their parents’ world.

I don’t believe children need nature more than all the other things we’re supposed to be giving them. It’s not that I think we should start trashing the nearest national park with our SUVs. I remain an ardent environmentalist, hiker, and birder. Yet my own romance with nature does not mean my son needs to feel the same attachment—or that a different attitude will doom him and his entire postmodern generation.

It’s not an either-or proposition: nature versus technology; country versus city. You can have both landscapes in your life and go everywhere your imagination leads. Nature is certainly one road to transcendence, and it can be a powerful tonic. Take, for instance, the opening lines of an essay, “The Sense of Wonder,” by pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson:

One stormy autumn night when my nephew Roger was about twenty months old I wrapped him in a blanket and carried him down to the beach in the rainy darkness. Out there, just at the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us. Together we laughed for pure joy—he a baby meeting for the first time the wild tumult of Oceanus, I with the salt of half a lifetime of sea love in me.

Her lovely essay, which first appeared in a women’s magazine in 1956, underscores in a few paragraphs what Louv takes almost four hundred pages to argue. Carson’s main point is that adults can renew their own joy by observing a child in action. “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children,” she writes, “I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life….”

Stoking this wonder, whether inspired by bright city lights or the pounding surf, really does seem the greatest gift we give our children. Nature isn’t the only source of wonder: We could talk about the connections children make with other people, whether by blood or the mysterious meshing of shared passions. We could talk about why exploring great cities can induce a sense of wonder, too.

In Times Square, what attracted Nick most were the street artists who drew caricatures. All those we saw were Asian, and he ran from one to the next, watching carefully when one formed a whole face by starting with the nose. He sat for a drawing of himself, amazed that anybody could capture him in just a few lines.

Although I haven’t learned more about nature since the arrival of Nick, his wonder at the most unexpected things has sparked me. We are both talkers. We love our own ideas; we like to flail at the conventional wisdom. Here is my Asian child, not born of my body, his dark eyes taking in ninja cartoons and clouds scudding across the Halloween moon with equal awe. With my blue eyes, there’s nothing natural about how we came together. But I’m awed by what he’s found.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: Nick has just turned eight, and I confess I sometimes worry about him being swallowed by the media maw. I’m worried about my own digital immersion, too. I blog away, he itches to get on the computer, my husband succumbs, and we all try to find some screen-time balance. Last night Nick asked if I knew what a Webkinz was. “Yes,” I answered cautiously. “I’m designing a website,” he said next. I knew this was a fantasy, but I played along. It would have “games and stuff,” he added when Annoying Mom pushed. But more than that, Nick and a friend had been inspired by the stuffed animals they’d sewn in their after-school program. “We decided to call them Stichkinz,” my son said.

Am I wrong for finding this clever? A handmade toy facsimile of a tiger (without a tail) rethought as a web creation? I’ve never been very literal-minded. Before dinner, sometimes we hurl blankets at each other like the anime characters who “bend” water and earth in The Last Airbender. It’s our family version of a green hour.

Martha Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine and nonprofit organization based in Boston. She also teaches in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School. Her son is now twelve and obsessed with Magic: The Gathering and first-person shooters, although he consents to mountain climbing on occasion.

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Fun with Dick and Jane

Fun with Dick and Jane


0-11While an October sun shone on her blonde bob and illuminated her gray front tooth—the product of a nasty fall the previous year—my four-year-old daughter Faith proudly sounded out all the words to a Dick and Jane anthology. “Dick runs. Jane Runs. Dick sees a ball.” Every few words, her eyes left the page to glance up at me and make sure she still had my attention. Somehow she had, along the roads back to Texas from New Mexico, learned to read. I’d secretly scoffed at the giant bag of B.O.B. books and early readers that Faith insisted on loading into the car, the weight of which slumped her shoulder to one side, bending her slight frame at an uncomfortable angle. However, somewhere around Big Spring, the pieces snapped into place. Letters became sounds and sounds became words, and words knitted together into a book. As parents, we never forget the elation of these first accomplishments. Moments like these are why we homeschool.

I certainly didn’t set out for my kids to learn at home. My personal school experience was pleasant but mediocre. Labeled gifted, I was bussed to another campus one day per week, where I had the type of divergent learning experiences that I’ve come to believe most public education lacks. The gifted class wrote research papers, made mummies and pyramids, pored over logic puzzles and performed detailed chemistry experiments while the kids back in “regular school” recited spelling words and did times table drills. Even in fourth grade, I puzzled over why only some of us had the opportunity to learn in such a rich environment. It didn’t seem fair that simply because I performed well on a test, I should be given a buffet of enriching learning experiences while other children were served meat and potatoes.

I wanted that gifted classroom experience for my kids, despite their testing abilities, or supposed I.Q. scores. I wanted time to spend an entire day in a museum, or with a book, or mastering complex logic problems. My strongest desire was for my children to meet the world, and all the lessons it has to offer, on their own terms, with a willing heart, propelled by their innate curiosity.

When my oldest was kindergarten age, I started reading everything I could find on homeschooling. The Internet was still young, but there was enough out there for me to piece together a rough idea of what our days might look like. My family and her father, my ex-husband, were resistant to the idea, but I forged ahead anyway, and my stubbornness and tenacity eventually won out. Like so many other parenting decisions I’d made—breastfeeding, homebirth, clean eating—this one felt important and I had the research to back me up. As she grew, and as the other children came along, we bumbled our way through. It took me around five years to feel completely sure footed and capable. The early years were overwhelming with small children coming every few years and toddlers underfoot. Yet, my children were learning, and what I couldn’t teach them, I found experts that could. Tutors, online classes, extra-curricular activities. My oldest son learned volumes about chemistry from an Einstein-haired man on YouTube. Participation in a part time co-op ran by two of my closest friends rekindled his love for history. Trips to the children’s museum taught my youngest daughter all about the anatomy of a tornado, as she stood transfixed in front of an interactive “tornado machine.” My oldest daughter, hungry to finish school, locked herself in our upstairs gameroom for two weeks, emerging with an entire year of Geometry under her belt, due to a DVD course. Years rolled by, and so did countless hours of school. Before I knew it, we had a high schooler, then a graduate. Most of the time, the children were learning and thriving, and we all felt successful, which is what I’d wanted when I set out.

However, what you want as a homeschooling mom isn’t always what you get. It wasn’t always a dream state, our homeschool days. Sometimes we yelled and argued, and my son refused to do math. My teenager complained incessantly that the algebra tutor I hired, while fully capable, smelled of bird seed and baby vomit. This same teen, my oldest daughter, graduated at fifteen, a product of a lot of hard work on both our parts. Seeing us struggle our way to a diploma, my youngest daughter chose to attend public middle school and plans to go onto high school. In fact, all my school age children have attended public school at one time or another. We’ve used it as a tool and a stop gap for what I call “When Nothing Else Works.” “Nothing Else Works” means our school days no longer contain joy, my children see me as an enemy wielding a workbook, and despite all my best tactics, learning ceases. Attending public school for a while seems to restore balance in my relationship with my children. The motivators to learn become grades and the teacher’s expectations, and I can go back to being the provider of cookies and snuggles. Yet for some reason, my children and I often gravitate back to each other, to the rhythm of days we know best as a home learning family. Sometimes it takes a year, sometimes a semester, for all of us to remember the lifestyle we lose when choosing to follow the calendar of the local school and not our own.

During the times my children attend public school, I feel a certain freedom from responsibility. I can sit back and relax with relative certainty that my children are meeting state standards. They are interacting with other kids, which is mostly a good thing, as our experiences have been for the most part bully-free and low-stress. I have more time to myself, the ability to structure days free from periodic tables and the battle of Bull Run. My child’s successful future rests less on my tired shoulders when handed over to professionals and principals. But I think something also is lost. Like the moment when Dick and Jane makes sense, or fractions become less of a mystery over a cake recipe you’ve halved. You lose days spent in a pile in the living room, everyone in their pajamas with books in their hands. There is a light that shines in the eyes of a child when an “aha” moment happens. They literally become lit from within as they grasp the concept of a square root, scientific notation, the structure of an atom. I’ve shared so many of my children’s firsts. First steps, first words, first heartbreaks. It only seems natural that we share moments of educational discovery, that they learn, alongside me, even more of how the world works. Homeschooling isn’t about keeping my children next to me out of fear, it is about allowing them the room to blossom at their own pace.

I never know where this road will take me, which educational path we will choose from year to year as my children grow. I do my best to follow my children while still honoring my own needs. It took some time to learn how to be fully present as the teacher of my children without losing myself. This means that I schedule time for regular pedicures and lunches with girlfriends. I hire a sitter often so that I can shop and drink coffee alone with my own thoughts. I’ve also learned over the last eighteen years, and as a mother of four, to trust the natural curiosity of a child. I know without a doubt that my children, having been given so much opportunity to follow their own interests, will find their own passions as adults. Often, my mantra is, “He will learn what he needs—to do what he loves.” They will learn these things under my tutelage or in a brick and mortar building. I know this, as I see it in action every day.

After graduating, my oldest took two years before deciding to go on to college. Freshly enrolled, she plans to get a degree that allows her to work with foster youths in group homes, something at which I know she’ll excel. My youngest daughter is enrolled in the culinary academy at our local high school. My oldest son, eleven years old at the time I write this, plans to go to middle school next year. He’s ready for the social experiences and sports opportunities that middle school provides, and not interested in home-based alternatives. My toddler will likely stay at home with me throughout his early school years. I will, once more, build block towers and roll out countless play dough snakes. He’s my last child, and as challenging as homeschooling can be, I still can’t wait for at least one more Dick and Jane moment.

Sarah Green is a wife and biological mother of three, adoptive mom to one, and a foster mom currently on hiatus. She enjoys crafting, chaos, and baking. Sarah is currently working on books about the realities of foster care and an anthology focused on homeschooling. Read more about her daily life at 

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Karl Marx Never Bought Spanx

Karl Marx Never Bought Spanx

winter2011_newman“So socialism means that everyone shares everything?” My seven-year-old daughter is trying to understand why I refer to our cooperative summer arrangement as “Socialist Friend Camp.” “And why do you always say it that way?” She means Slavically.

I sigh. “It’s hard to explain,” I say, and it’s true. The accent is only part of it; really what I want to do is move through my suburban life in full Karl Marx costume, complete with bushy grey beard, bushy grey hair, and Communist Manifesto. Somebody somewhere is probably marketing that costume and—irony!—profiting handsomely from it. O, the world!

The world. There has never been a more catastrophically extreme divide between the rich and the poor: While the wealthy evade taxes and install TVs the size of flattened hearses, twenty-seven thousand children die daily of preventable causes—even though there’s enough to go around, there is. But it doesn’t go around. At America’s biggest companies, the CEOs earn over five hundred times what the average worker does. It’s easy for me to point my revolutionary finger: There. Bazillionaire! Bad. But what about right here, in my warm, comfortable house with rooms galore and cupboards lined with food? “In a second I would give it all up, I would, if that’s the direction the world was headed,” I say, and I mean it. But when the children say, “So let’s,” I sigh. I barely have time to nag my husband to mow our lawn; the fomenting of a movement and then the actual moving feels beyond the scope of my bourgeois energy level.

But sometimes it feels a little devastating, the sweetness we cultivate in our children, our insistence that they share their Zhu Zhu Pets and Laffy Taffy. Why even bother teaching them the values of sharing and cooperation, when our national ethos is the hoarding of food and medicine, land and resources, like the good capitalists that we are?

Congratulations! we’ll say when they turn twenty-one. Now you can start drinking legally and stop behaving ethically! Maybe we’re just helping them get all that pesky sharing out of the way so it doesn’t burden them later, when they’re clambering over each other towards the teetering heights of personal wealth.

Did you see that Simon Rich piece in The New Yorker a while back? It was called “Play Nice: If adults were subjected to the same indignities as children…” and the part that made me laugh out loud was this:

Lou Rosenblatt: Can I drive your car? I’ll give it back when I’m done.

Mrs. Herson: I’m sorry, do I know you?

Lou Rosenblatt: No, but we’re the same age and we use the same garage.

Mrs. Herson: No offense, sir, but I really don’t feel comfortable lending you my car. I mean, it’s by far my most important possession.

Brian Herson: Mom, I’m surprised at you! What did we learn about sharing?

Mrs. Herson: You’re right . . . I’m sorry. Take my Mercedes.

And it’s funny, it is. Grown-ups sharing! But isn’t it even more comical to imagine the opposite? Kids treating each other the way grown-ups do? Pimping out the labor of their peers, CEOing the babysitting and lawn-mowing to exploit each other for profit? Some kids unfettered in their wealth and greed, piggy banks overflowing, while other kids, the ones doing the actual work, can’t make a living wage? Ha ha ha! Oh, right, it’s not actually funny. I hate to become the embodiment of finger-wagging bummerhood, but seriously—is sharing the real indignity?

*   *   *

“From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” My kids are learning the Marxist formula, like good little card-carrying Socialists. But it doesn’t help that I am, as always, fuzzy on the details of my political passion. For instance: card-carrying, which, for some reason, I have always pictured more like Hallmark than ID. Because I am a Socialist / What’s mine is yours, you get the gist… I don’t mention to the kids the sexistly troubling fact that Mrs. Marx was likely stabbing platters of sliced bratwurst with toothpicks and pouring endless glasses of vodka for the meetings of the real Socialists, who were, of course, men.

Besides graduate school—where I T.A.ed a Marxist Theory class, pet-sat cats named Lenin and Trotsky, and found myself frequently flattened beneath various anvil-style monologues about dialectical materialism and commodity fetishism—everything I know about alternatives to Capitalism I know from the Woody Allen movies Bananas and Love and Death. Also from growing up in the age of Cold War propaganda. Remember how Nadia Comaneci’s gold-medal floor routines were interspersed with footage of her parents waiting greyly in assorted sleeting bread lines? My own Russian grandmother seemed to spend the 1970s making borscht and sending relatives home to the mother country with suitcases full of jeans. “You vill sell, yes?” The poor Communists didn’t even have jeans! Those glum kerchief-headed kids, waiting denimlessly for their heavy Soviet loaves.

Whose joke is it that Socialist recreation consists of waiting in line for tickets to the toilet-paper line? I want my kids to maintain their optimistic vision of utopian justice, without misleading them about the fact that there aren’t such great examples of it in human history. Or at least, none that I can explain very well. Sweden, for example. Besides the making meatballs and the becoming supermodels, what actually goes on in Sweden? Do they stand in IKEA lines for their national allotment of Smorssgläben side tables in birch? I have no idea. Beyond the better maternity leave, healthcare, and some kind of national right to blondness, I don’t know much. Which doesn’t seem to dam the stream of opinions pouring from my political face hole.

*   *   *

“Let’s play Proletariat Revolution again!” my red-diaper babies beg. “You be Hegel. We’ll be the alienated workers.”

“Not until you finish your turnip porridge,” I say, “and scrub the community toilets.” If only. We get out Monopoly like good citizens, so that we can learn about private property and screwing everybody. “You’d be able to get rich,” I explain to my losing children, “if you weren’t already so poor!” Suckers. Actually, Monopoly is dull compared to Acquire, a game from which Ben has learned the terms “corporate merger” and “majority shareholder”; playing it brings out the slum lord in everybody, all of us cackling and rubbing our hands together like evil flies. On principle, we also play Harvest Time, which is gentle and cooperative: We help each other hurry our crops into the root cellar before winter comes, but it is so frankly dull that we end up with our foreheads on the table, groaning, even while our little daughter is offering us some of her corn and carrots because she’s got more than she needs.

The kids talk about what they would wish for if they could have anything, distinguishing between just-for-being-selfish wishes (our own personal soda machine with soda in it that you would actually let us drink) and the real wish you would wish if you only had one wish (justice). “If you had limitless money,” Ben always prompts me, “then you could get the stuff you want and still buy everyone everything they need, right?” He pictures stacks and stacks of million-dollar bills, glad-handing his way to health and happiness for all, even as the Coke dispenser is being installed in our new billiards room. I explain that a radical redistribution of wealth is more complicated—more like beads moved around on an abacus than extra rows of beads added onto it—but it’s not what I actually picture. Justice: a cool hand smoothing the forehead of our feverish world.

*   *   *

“Oh, please,” I say aloud to the radio. “Obama’s not enough of a Socialist.” People are always quick to remind you that communism has never worked. And, sure, Cuba, China, the Soviet Union: too little fun, too much corruption—plus the executing of everybody who wasn’t already incarcerated. But what about Capitalism? It does seem to sleet less now in Eastern Europe, what with everyone’s access to bright pastels, the denim trousers without borders. But it’s hard to argue that capitalism is working exactly. Unless your goal was rich countries profiting off the backs of poor ones; unless your goal was freedom for the wealthy to run the endless Möbius-strip treadmill of paycheck-to-mall meaninglessness. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of crap you don’t need and also the Pottery Barn lidded baskets to store it all in. I’m glad I’m not, say, a serf—but at least with Feudalism, nobody was tricked into thinking that anyone could be king if they only worked hard enough or got a basketball scholarship.

*   *   *

Across the table from me now, Ben is eating a piece of blueberry crumb cake and showing me his fifth-grade homework. “It’s a compare and contrast chain about ‘Wakaima and the Clay Man,'” he explains, “which is a story about a lazy rabbit who makes an elephant do all the work on the farm. We’re supposed to show how it’s like a real-life situation.” He has described them as the fable version of factory owners and exploited workers. I have never been prouder. Workers of the world, unite!

“Why are you writing about it?” Ben asks pleasantly, crumbs spraying as he leans over to look at my computer screen. “I’m writing a piece about talking to kids about capitalism,” I tell him, and he says, “Wait, what’s capitalism again?”


This is probably where I should mention that Ben’s life goal is to own the world’s biggest casino. And also, you know, to promote justice. “When really rich people come and lose money,” he explains, “I’ll give that money away to an organization.” The Robin Hood of Las Vegas!

I’m not really surprised. It must be confusing to be the child of such a split-personality family. On the one hand, we have a young mother living with her baby in our guest room, and we get our Patagonia fleece hoodies at the Salvation Army. On the other hand, we send our kids to (wince) private school and plant peonies. We pick through bunches of organic kale when the world is full of people who aren’t eating at all—when across town from us, there are mothers picking through outdated cans in the food pantry, and across the world from us there are mothers rocking dying babies. What if my own children were ill in my arms, stilled by malnutrition or malaria, and I looked across the globe and saw people like us, in our cozy New England cape house, with our shoes for every season and our compost heaped with uneaten food? I don’t know what to think. It’s not right, living this way. It’s not fair. We teach our kids to share because we know it’s the only way to thrive, all of us.

In his 1949 paper “Why Socialism?” Albert Einstein, of e=mc, proposed eliminating the “grave evils” of capitalism via “a planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow-men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”

I’m no physicist, but that kind of relativity? I get it. I do.

Author’s Note: At some point I was sitting around with friends, and we were drinking wine and yelling at our kids to share something fairly—jelly beans, I think. And then we were killing ourselves laughing, imagining training them from an early age to be good capitalists. (Which is, of course, the piñata model of distribution.) We were maybe a little drunk, but it triggers something deep, teaching kids fundamental values that aren’t always embraced by the broader culture. And honestly? This piece—it’s hard to put out there because I’m confessing such a profound hypocrisy. That line about my kids going to private school, for example—I deleted and retyped it a dozen times. I have good intentions; I’m selfish; I crave justice; I seek comfort. I judge myself harshly, but I hope you won’t judge me. I hope.

Brain, Child (Winter 2011)

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Natural (and Unnatural) Selection

Natural (and Unnatural) Selection

spring2010_newmanI’m talking to the kids about the Galapagos Islands because it’s Darwin’s birthday. “No it’s not,” my partner, Michael, interjects. “It’s the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species.”  Whatever. I am in love with evolution, but what exactly happened out at Galapagos I’m less clear about: Dinosaurs turned into Komodo dragons, which sprouted legs and crewed the S.S. Beagle? Something. I attend to ideas in passionate—if brief—flurries of attention; I can be aghast over a headline I’ve misinterpreted in a newspaper story I haven’t actually read. “They’re replacing school nurses with robots!” I might cry, indignant, and Michael will say, “I think that’s just an article about MIT graduate students.” Oh.

“Distraction is adaptive,” I explain to the children. “If I did only one thing at a time, your lunchboxes would be packed every day with air and then you’d never survive to reproduce now, would you?”

No. They would not. Biologist Ernst Mayr summarized Darwin’s theory this way: “Individuals more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce and leave their inheritable traits to future generations, which produces the process of natural selection.” Force open your rusted-over junior-high-school mind, sift through your Duran Duran memorabilia, and call this up. Remember? No, not the smooth and wrinkled peas—that was genetics (Doesn’t “Mendel’s Peas” sound like a vegetarian deli? Or maybe a Hungarian garage band.). Keep sifting. It’s the other thing—the pale peppered moths on dark trees getting picked off by the birds. Remember? Or has “survival of the fittest” kind of blurred into “Manifest Destiny,” and now it gives you a bad white-people-giving-away-free!-small-pox-blankets feeling to recall it? It’s not like that. Nor does survival of the fittest really have a fitness component—it doesn’t mean that your daughter’s ropey and muscled karate instructor will thrive to birth a million babies like a sea turtle while you, with your giant corduroy thighs rubbing together with a shkrrr-shkrrr sound (I’m just imagining here) will drop immediately dead; it’s more like genetic calisthenics. Which is why the term “reproductive success” has nothing to do with foreplay, Tantric ecstasy, or simultaneous climaxing. It’s about whether particular traits help a particular organism live long enough to produce offspring. Your husband could do you from behind while you were bent over to sort the Tupperware drawer. And if you got pregnant and passed along your organizational skills to your offspring? Evolutionary Bingo! Reproductive success.

But for now, the kids and I stick to our conversations about various visible traits and how they might be adaptive, and let me say this: If you live in the world as a student of natural selection, you will never be bored. The children study the eyes of animals to determine if they’re predators or prey. Prey have those nervous side eyes, usually with the big nervous ears, twitching and swiveling all around to see who’s coming to eat them and from where; picture a bunny, a mouse, Bambi’s dead mother. Predators’ eyes stare out from the front of their heads. “The better to chase you with, my dear,” ten-year-old Ben says in his best Big Bad Wolf voice, even though we humans are predators, too (except for maybe your one cousin with the nervous side eyes whom you feel a strange urge to chase).

We stroke our pussycat and analyze him for adaptivity: fur to keep him warm, of course; whiskers to avoid bumping into nighttime doorways; and what about purring? We don’t know. “It makes you want to take care of him,” Ben hypothesizes, which is so totally true. I picture the kittens turning on their irresistible little motors, the mother cat thinking, “Oh, fine,” and rolling over to expose her rows of exhausted teats. I picture my babies smiling up at me at the exact moment I was contemplating how discreetly to rid myself of them; I picture myself weeping instead, spilling over with love, and yoinking a milky boob from my nightgown. They’ve actually studied this—the way babies’ smiles trigger massive hits of dopamine and oxytocin in their parents, biological and adoptive both. Street drugs could kill you, but nature’s drugs might just keep you alive.

“Being cute is adaptive,” six-year-old Birdy says, as if reading my mind. She’s thinking still about the pussycat, but I’m thinking about her: the big eyes, the helpless littleness, the wobbly dependence.

I kiss her plummy cheeks and say, “It is.”

“So is being beautiful,” Ben says, hair falling around his face like dark silk, his lips the color of berries. “Like the male hummingbirds.” We watched one at the feeder all summer: a head sleeked over with emerald feathers, the neck banded in iridescence. I’m sure the girls were going crazy. I picture the scarlet cardinal seducing his fawn-colored mate, male peacocks fanning the riot of their tails, the hot crimson wattles of a cock. Why the human equivalent is a boozy grin from a barstool remains a mystery. At least to me.

But sex is a big part of it, right? All the pleasure-rigged engineering that keeps the species from extinction, all the stinky snatches of body hair like so much pheromonal quicksand, the blood rushing hither and yon in its tumescent quest for continuity. “Enjoy it,” I like to tease Michael, nudely. “I’m going to be done with this after menopause.” If it were adaptive for us to have sex for our entire lives, would our coochies really dry up like that at a certain point? Is Viagra an adaptive invention—everyone’s grandpa running around with a four-hour woody? I don’t know. I don’t understand the relationship between technology and nature. Because as it is, I never feel more special—in the species sense—than when I’m ovulating. That pull towards sex then? It’s pure animal survival. Michael is always thrilled, if a little daunted—that growled “fuck me” emanating adaptively from the very throat of my DNA.

Of course the danger here is that evolutionary arguments, rather than remaining the grand, analytical riddles that they are, get mustered to justify various patterns of domination: Women should suckle everybody; gay people should concede the barren hydraulics of their coupling; pregnancy should end in birth. Gender inequality; the Defense of Marriage Act; threats to Roe v. Wade. Danger, danger, danger. That’s why you have to get kids with the program, and get them there early and inarguably.

“Clearly,” I explain, “we’ve adapted to the point where, whether we’re gay or straight, we understand how to have or not have babies, which is the most healthy thing for human beings.” Reproductive technology is adaptive for replicating the species; reproductive freedom is adaptive for women’s health and population control. It makes perfect sense to the kids, in the same way that justice and helping other people also makes perfect evolutionary sense to them. (We see where rugged individualism has gotten us: a world of drowning polar bears, slave labor, illness, the bogglingly unjust distribution of wealth, of poverty.)

“Also karate,” Birdy says. “Karate is totally adaptive for girls and women because it keeps you”—here she kicks her leg out and aiiiiiiis fiercely—”safe.” Indeed. Mostly, though, we speak not in philosophical abstractions, but in the interest of solving an endless series of evolutionary logic puzzles. Maybe it’s the way other families talk about God: We are awestruck. Milkweed blows far and wide, a botanical Don Juan, we conclude. Acorns thunk straight down beneath the sheltering oaks. “They must grow better if they’re close to their moms, ” Birdy theorizes from my lap. A pomegranate stuns us, its seeds packed together like a ruby-filled auditorium. “Maybe it attracts the birds so that the tree can get them to poop out its seeds all over the place.” Probably it does.

“Poor berries,” Ben sighs. “They didn’t plan on the sewer system, all us humans just flushing their seeds down.” I picture—but don’t mention—the related phenomenon of jizz-soaked teenaged Kleenex, like so much potential life sneezed away. Ben thinks for a minute, toilets flushing over his head like light bulbs, then asks, “What about poop?”

I laugh. “What about poop?” It’s a favorite topic of conversation.

“Why does poop smell bad, do you think?” When I lob over the classic parental Why do you think poop smells bad? he says, “Probably so you won’t eat it.” We picture an entire race of sickened people dying off, their poop smelling like Rice Krispie Treats.

But really? Evolution is nature at its most enchanted: the beaker of science fizzing over with magic. It is logic and mystery, life and death, the omniscience of a god, but without the burning-in-hell morality. Without any morality at all, actually. Ben, considering our resident swivel-headed, night-vision barn owl and the big-eared, nose-twitching mice, muses, “Nature just lets them duke it out. They both adapted for what they need—chasing or getting away—and then they just do their best.”

And so do we, given that we are programmed to be here and then not—to die one day, despite how ferociously attached we may be to life. At the top of a fire tower, after a gorgeous and vigorous hike, Ben wondered recently about death. “It’s funny,” he said. “I mean, it’s obviously adaptive for the species as a whole for people to die. Otherwise you’d just have, like, a bazillion people everywhere, fighting over everything. But then, how did nature select for death? Because dead people? They were dead. They couldn’t exactly pass along the dying trait.” Holy necrophilia. Although he’s more right than he might know: Programmed cell death is one of the least well-understood biological traits; cells don’t have to die, but they do.

“Whoa,” says a fellow hiker, a stranger to us, raising his disturbed eyebrows at my pretty, pink-cheeked son. “Deep.”

When I ask Ben what has prompted this revelation, he says, “Being kind of tempted to jump off the fire tower.” Oh. “But then knowing I would die if I did. I guess it’s adaptive for me personally to not want to die.” I guess it is. I think about teenagers everywhere, the danger that their will to thrive will ebb treacherously away. And I cross my fingers and send up a kind of evolutionary prayer. We may be programmed to desire that our offspring live to reproduce themselves—but it just feels like love.

Author’s Note: I love the idea of Lamarckism: the so-called “soft” theory of evolution that allows for acquired characteristics to be passed on to offspring—a theory that gets regularly debunked and resurrected. I like to willfully misinterpret it to mean that my children, born of two half-Jews, will pass on a genetic love of frying latkes in bacon grease. My father likes to willfully misinterpret it to explain the impatience I inherited from growing up in an impatient household. “Your mother—always craning her nosy head around,” a giraffe probably said to his kid at some point. “You get your long neck from her.”

Brain, Child (Spring 2010)

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Talking Smack

Talking Smack

By Johanna Bailey

spring2009_bailey“Let’s leave the kids at home and meet up for a drink sometime!”

Every time I join a new playgroup, there’s always at least one person who suggests a girls’ night out. I’m never sure exactly how to respond. Do I say that alcohol gives me a headache? That I’m on medication and can’t drink? That I’m allergic? Or do I say nothing at all and just hope that they won’t notice when I order orange juice at the bar?

The truth is, I’m an alcoholic and heroin addict in recovery. Eight years into my sobriety, it doesn’t get any easier to say that out loud.

Even more troubling is what—if anything—I say to my son, Nico, and when. He’s only three. When he asks why I don’t drink wine like daddy, I explain to him I don’t like the taste, just like he doesn’t like the taste of corn. And that’s all the explanation he needs. Right now, Nico’s idea of partying involves lots of balloons and short people running in circles screeching. It’s going to be a while before he’s ready to hear about my history of substance abuse. But I know that time is coming.

For better or worse, the days are gone when people would simply sweep the dicey parts of their personal pasts under the nearest rug as soon as they became parents. No longer can we just leave a few pamphlets on the kids’ beds and assume that we’ve done our job in talking about drugs and alcohol. No, today we’re supposed to talk to our kids, the experts tell us. We should be open and honest about everything from drugs to sex to the death of a family pet. And this makes sense to me. Certainly I would never want to travel back fifty years in time to try and morph myself into some sort of a June Cleaver of a mother.

Nevertheless, I still can’t help but wonder if, in my case, being completely honest with my son is really the wisest option. On the contrary, I’m terrified that by telling him about my past, particularly regarding my heroin use, I’ll only be increasing the chances that he’ll end up experiencing the same problems that I did.

One morning sometime during my junior high years, my stepfather sat with me at the kitchen table and talked about some of his more harrowing experiences with drugs. I sat there transfixed as he told me about the night when he found himself lying facedown in a forest in the rain after binging on whiskey and cocaine.

Given the fact that he was talking about it over waffles, it didn’t seem to me that whatever he’d experienced had done him any lasting harm. He had a family and a nice house, and soon he’d hop into his Saab and head off to a good job. Rather than serve as a warning to stay away from drugs, as he had intended, the story merely tickled my curiosity. I, too, wanted to spend a cocaine-fueled bacchanalian night in a forest, albeit in dryer weather.

By that age, I’d already noticed that alcohol played an important role in our house, both for relaxation and celebration. My parents were not alcoholics, but they did drink. They were the only ones on the block who did. That’s because I was raised in Salt Lake City, a land dominated by Mormons, a group of people who don’t even possess coffee machines, let alone corkscrews or shot glasses. It didn’t take long for me to connect some dots. People who drank were free-thinking liberals who stayed away from oversized hair bows and minivans (aka “Mormon movers”). People who did not drink were conservative goody-goodies. The men in the latter group all had Ken doll haircuts, and the women had a penchant for wearing floral headbands. Most importantly, their children did not invite me to their birthday parties.

My parents were honest about their own youthful transgressions, which ranged from my stepdad’s coked-up nights of excess and regret, to my mother’s single puff off a joint in 1969. In my adolescent mind, that made my step-dad credible and my mother clueless.

What any of it had to do with me, however, was beyond the scope of my imagination. The teenaged “It won’t happen to me” mentality was deeply etched into my mind. So I ignored my parents when they warned me that the high incidence of alcoholism in our extended family meant it was very likely I’d develop substance abuse problems myself if I weren’t careful. After all, it was one thing to know that I may have a predisposition for addiction, but another thing entirely to see that Suzy at school had been smoking joints for months with no apparent ill effects other than having eyes that resembled a couple of glazed donuts.

And then there were the mixed messages. My parents told me that I wasn’t allowed to use drugs or drink, but, like many of my friends’ parents, they tacked on an addendum: If I did “somehow happen to find myself” in a situation where I couldn’t safely drive home, I should definitely not be afraid to call them for a ride. The way I interpreted this was, “We don’t want you to do it, but we expect that you might anyway. If you do, we’ll be disappointed, but we won’t permanently chain you to your canopy bed.”

So I went to parties, drank, and started experimenting with drugs. Did I worry about getting in trouble? Sure. But I worried more about winding up as a twenty-one-year-old Girl Scout who was still selling cookies in a pair of perfectly creased polyester pants, which was my mental image of anyone who didn’t drink or do drugs. We sinners had to band together, and if that meant pounding ten cans of the three-percent-alcohol beer sold in Utah supermarkets to get a buzz, I was all for it. For me there was no middle ground. If you didn’t party, you might as well head down to the Mormon temple and prostrate yourself on its well-manicured front lawn.

My stepfather never became either an addict or an alcoholic, but I sure did. In that light, his story hit far wide of the mark in terms of its intended effect. Do I want to open up to Nico some day and risk the same thing happening to him?

My hesitations about sharing my past were reinforced even more when I read David Sheff’s book, Beautiful Boy, about his son’s crystal meth addiction. In the book, Sheff agonizes over whether or not he made a mistake in telling his son that he himself had used drugs, including crystal meth. He proposes that in some instances, it can actually do more harm than good when adults tell kids about their past substance abuse: “It’s the same reason that it may backfire when famous athletes show up at school assemblies … and tell kids, ‘Man, don’t do this shit, I almost died,’ and yet there they stand, diamonds, gold, multimillion-dollar salaries and cereal box fame.”

Even Barack Obama admitted in his 1995 memoir that in his youth he drank and used drugs. Obama has stated since then that his purpose in revealing his past was to show young people who have problems that it is possible to make mistakes and still recover. An admirable sentiment, but what about those kids who haven’t tried drugs? Is the knowledge that their new president used to get drunk, smoke pot and snort cocaine really helpful? Or might it just make them think that they, too, can mess around with drugs and alcohol for a few years before going on to become successful and famous?

I’m not running for president, and it’s not likely that my face will ever grace a box of Wheaties, but my life is pretty good considering the foolish decisions I made in the past. The negative consequences—the devastation of those that loved me, the loss of self-respect, the years of depression, and the humiliating memories—all of those are almost impossible to verbalize in any way that would be enough to convince Nico not to follow in my footsteps. The fact is that I was supremely lucky—lucky that, unlike so many others, I was able to put down the drinks and the drugs and move on with my life without any long-term serious consequences.

Still, I wouldn’t wish my experiences on my worst enemy, let alone my beloved child. Is there any way to say this to Nico without it sounding like just another cliché?

I decided to do a bit of investigating and to talk to some experts in the field of adolescent substance abuse. My first stop was Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of The Partnership for a Drug-Free America. “Of course you have to tell him about your history!” he exclaimed. He went on to tell me that as an alcoholic and addict in recovery, I have “a very powerful voice and a credible message.” Pasierb also said that although I don’t owe my son a “blow-by-blow summary” of everything I’ve done, I still need to be honest with him about my drug use. “Teenagers have a big bullshit filter, so if you lie to them, they’re going to know it. Basically, honesty is the best policy.”

After speaking with Pasierb, I headed to my local library, where I plowed through as many books on the subject of adolescents and substance abuse as I could find. In the end, it appeared that most experts agree that parents should be truthful about past drug use but that they don’t need to go into every last detail. Exactly how many details one should reveal, however, is up to the individual.

In the 2002 book Just Say Know by Cynthia Kuhn, Scott Swartzwelder, and Wilkie Wilson, the authors warn that the decision of how much to divulge must be taken very seriously. They urge you to use caution when discussing your past drug use with your kids.

Okay, but what does that mean?

Should you tell a teen about your own drug experiences? No single answer will work for everyone. … The most compelling reason to avoid sharing your own drug history is that it conveys a kind of permission: “You did it, so what’s the big deal?”

But they follow that advice up with this observation:

On the other hand, some would argue that coming clean about your own causal drug use can promote a sense of honest communication between you and a teen. Maybe so. But remember that kids and adults don’t always interpret things in the same way.

Ambiguous advice such as this is typical throughout the literature on talking to kids about drugs. Tell them, but don’t tell them everything. Tell them, but be very very careful how you tell them. Tell them but only when they’re ready to hear it.

Obviously, I’m not going to tell my son when he’s in elementary school about the summer I literally burned through my aunt’s entire spoon collection cooking up heroin. But when will he be ready to hear that? Does any kid ever need to hear that about one of their parents?

There are at least a couple of experts out there who share my fears about revealing past drug use. In a July 2008 article in Ebony, psychologist Dr. Michelle R. Callahan recommended that parents not volunteer their drug history to their children, at least until they become adults (or very close to it).

“Chances are that your children will hear your confession of your drug use, take one look at your success, and determine that doing drugs didn’t slow you down one bit,” she writes. “You look good and you live well, so in their minds how did drugs hurt you?” Even John Walters, then director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, had suggested that parents keep the truth about past marijuana use from their children, saying to a group of Louisiana parents in 2002, “They’re your kids, not your confessors.”

I’m aware that, as an addict in recovery, my situation is unique. I know that I can’t necessarily follow the same rules as everyone else when it comes to talking to my son about my drug history. But what rules should I follow? Most of the advice out there is aimed at either people who fooled around with drugs in their youth but never developed a problem, or at people whose addictions directly affected the lives of their children. I was an alcoholic with a serious drug problem, but I’d been clean and sober for five years by the time my son was born, so I don’t fit into either category. This means I have an entire life to reveal—or to hide.

Steve Pasierb told me that I have a “powerful message” for my son—but will its power help him or hurt him? Addicts come from all different kinds of backgrounds and families, and although studies have shown that parents are the most important influence on whether or not kids abuse drugs and alcohol, in many cases being a good parent just isn’t enough.

The more I’ve toyed with the idea of not telling Nico about my heroin addiction, the more I realize that I don’t really have a choice. I want to be able to talk with him freely and openly about drugs, something I know I wouldn’t be comfortable doing if I had to lie or omit the truth about my own history. But more than that, perhaps the most important reason I have to be honest isn’t so much for his benefit as for mine. One of the reasons I got sober in the first place was so that I could stop lying. The idea of having to lie for many more years to the person I love most in the world is inconceivable.

My own parents weren’t able to keep me from becoming an addict, but they were able to help me to get sober. If we hadn’t had an open and honest relationship to begin with, I don’t think that would have been possible. I pray that it won’t ever get to that point with Nico, but if it does, at least he’ll know exactly where he stands, and that I’ll be standing right there with him.

Author’s Note: It wasn’t until my son was born that I started to comprehend the heartache that my addictions caused my parents. My mother had always told me that I would never realize how much she loved me until I had my own child. Now I understand what she meant. This is the most personal thing I have every written, yet at times it felt as though I were writing about a fictional character. When I remember how my mother cried when I told her about my heroin use, however, I know that this was me. I hope it will never be my son.

Brain, Child (Spring 2009)

About the Author: Johanna Bailey lives with her husband and two sons in Barcelona, Spain. Her website is

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The Fur Berry Dilemma

The Fur Berry Dilemma

By Lara Strong

spring2010_strongIn Hungary, where I have lived for ten years, most schools operate with tight budgets. As a result, there aren’t a lot of toys or books in the classrooms for kids to play with or look through during breaks. In the States, the “bring-your-own lunch” concept exists; in Hungary, kids are allowed—in fact, encouraged—to bring in their own toys.

This has never caused much of a problem. My eight-year-old son has always relished the morning ritual of choosing which toy to bring in: Should it be a Lego dinosaur? How about Playmobil pirates or some tiny, plastic animal figures? Now that my six-year-old daughter, Sara, is entering first grade, she is already eagerly anticipating this practice—a stuffed unicorn, perhaps? Maybe a pretty pink pony?

I’ve rarely had an opportunity to witness what happens when my kids actually arrive at school, but I imagine how it goes each morning. They set down their backpacks, take off their jackets, and change into the indoor slippers required in most Hungarian schools. Then they produce their toys. There are lots of oohs of admiration, squeals of excitement. Exchanges are made, deals struck—if you let me play with that at recess, you can play with this and then after five minutes we can switch—and on a really lucky day, My mom says we can swap as long as we swap back tomorrow.

As Sara’s first year in elementary school progresses she spends much of her time talking excitedly about who has what, and long minutes are devoted each morning to carefully selecting her toy of the day. “Tekla likes ponies,” she’ll say, “so I should bring this blue pony with the sparkles, and then maybe she’ll let me play with her white Pegasus with the golden reins, unless Flora brings her mermaid with the sequins, because then I would want …” Occasionally she mentions, “We learned a new letter today” or “We started adding double digits.” With an approving nod, I encourage her to divulge more about her school day, but her response is inevitably “And Athena brought in a ballerina Barbie …”

One day not long after Christmas, Sara comes home chattering eagerly about a new toy that has made its appearance—something that apparently stands out from the now mundane ponies, mermaids, and Barbies.

“It’s a stuffed animal that can transform into a fruit and even smells like a fruit,” she explains excitedly. “A Fur Berry. And there are four, maybe even five different kinds! And Tekla has one, and so does Flora, and Anna, and …” She stops her speech and looks at me expectantly.

“Well that’s great. Lots of Fur Berries, lots of opportunities to make swaps.”

But she’s shaking her head as if I don’t understand. I turn and face her. She is not eager or excited as I first thought, but agitated. In fact, her big brown eyes are blinking hard, fighting back tears. “No, Mommy,” she says with a hint of desperation. “Everyone has a Fur Berry—don’t you see?—everyone but me.” I may have been slow on the uptake, but now the message is clear. Swapping isn’t enough. A Fur Berry is not a toy one merely obtains on exchange for just a day or two at the most. Its importance lies far beyond its transient entertainment value. It will earn her social cachet, and it’s vital that I as a parent understand this. But somehow, I find myself unable to accept Sara’s urgent need for this fuzzy, pastel-colored plaything.

Days go by, however, and the Fur Berry is the only topic she’s willing to discuss, and always with the teary eyes. Eventually she does concede that, okay, not everyone has a Fur Berry. Only the girls. And well, not all the girls either, only a few. But they are the girls that matter. They are the girls who decide who is in and who is out.

My husband and I are dismayed. She’s only in first grade, yet peer pressure and the tyranny of cliques have already reared their ugly heads. Sooner than I expected, I find myself recalling my own painful struggles of early adolescence. I was never a popular child, introverted and bookish, awkward and unfashionable. And this last quality, my lack of style, was the most problematic. I was sadly aware of how popularity was connected to wealth, and that material possessions could impact one’s social standing: all my clothes came from the Sears catalogue, while many of the other girls were wearing trendy stone-washed Guess jeans. “A waste of money,” my mother would say, “and totally unimportant.” But I remember the looks of scorn on my classmates’ faces.

Painful as it was, however, I knew then as I know now, that the lessons my mother was teaching were important. A person’s value could not be measured according to the number of designer labels hanging in the closet. As my mother reminded me repeatedly, friends and social groups were chosen based on shared interests or personal qualities such as a sense of humor or intelligence. Whether someone had the latest velour V-neck pullover was of no consequence. “We don’t buy things just for the sake of popularity!” she’d say.

In a rare moment, even my Hungarian mother-in-law, who tends not to agree with any of my ideas on childrearing, concurs. She grew up under communism, raised her children under communism, and while she despises totalitarianism, she is also disgusted by the creeping materialist culture. “There was never much to buy in those days,” she explains, “so we never had situations like this Fur Berry business. All you could get were the same Czechoslovak paper dolls, East German toy cars, Yugoslav jeans. What was the status in that? Nothing. It was better that way. Now,” she says shaking her head and waving her hands, “everything comes in from the West. Everyone has to have what everyone else has got. A terrible waste.”

I sigh, knowing the two moms are right. Everyone knows materialism is running rampant these days, even in Hungary. With the economy in crisis, the environment in peril, the evils of wanton consumption discussed on every television talk show, the need to resist is more important than ever. I look at Sara blinking back the tears and know that I have to remain steadfast. There’s no time like the present to instill in my own daughter good, solid values. What better place to start than this basic tenet: Material possessions don’t matter, but how you make your friends does. Who could argue with that? I say to her firmly, “No, you cannot have a Fur Berry. You don’t need it, it’s totally unimportant.”

A couple of weeks later, I pick Sara up at school early. A group of little girls are sitting happily in a circle rocking pale-colored stuffed creatures that smell of strawberries, plums, and peaches. Occasionally the girls cast derisive looks back at those few little girls outside the circle who do not possess these strange-looking animal-fruit hybrids. I even hear one girl utter, “I’m not playing with you if you don’t have a Fur Berry.” I feel a stab at my heart and do my best to recall my mother’s words (“a waste of money, totally unimportant, we don’t buy things just for the sake of popularity!”)

But I look again at my little girl, who’s visibly upset. It’s different when you see the hard, real consequences of your decisions played out before your eyes. What does Sara really understand about good, solid values, the right method of choosing friends, or the irrelevance of our material possessions? All she knows is that she is on the outside looking in. All she knows is that the bear-cum-peach is more than just a toy, but an entrée into the coterie of the privileged, her social savior, an assurance that tomorrow she will have someone to play with.

As days pass, she informs me of more and more classmates whose moms have succumbed and purchased them Fur Berries. The number of girls on the outside is slowly diminishing. I begin to see that the story of the Fur Berry is not going to end where I had assumed. Sara is not going to join the ranks of the non-Fur Berry girls and discover those kids—the witty, intelligent ones my mother talked about—who might become her best friends for life. Instead she is coming home each day feeling increasingly isolated.

My opposition to peer pressure and materialism begins to feel less stalwart. What would happen if I did buy her a Fur Berry?

She would certainly take pleasure in the toy itself. This is a point I have resisted considering, since it runs so strongly against my anti-materialist stance, but it’s true: Having nice stuff feels good. My mother-in-law might argue that in the Hungary of the 1960s and ’70s, people didn’t care about material possessions, but then again, maybe her memory is not exactly perfect. After all, communism wasn’t an overwhelming success, and, when given the opportunity, Hungarians had shed it as quickly as possible. I’m sure an evolutionary biologist would probably tell us pretty much every human on the planet is vulnerable to the lure of nice, cool things and their social perks. Sara is experiencing an anguish that is almost universal. The little girls in a first-grade class in Budapest are no more immune to this pull than any child in any American classroom, or any adult for that matter, perhaps anywhere. After all, communism failed because it ignored basic human nature. Even my mother-in-law acknowledges this.

My mother never did buy me the Guess jeans, but one afternoon as I’m contemplating the whole Fur Berry dilemma, into my head pops an image of me at twelve or thirteen. I’m sitting on a school bus, wearing a pair of purple Sassoon corduroys. Yes, designer pants. How could I have forgotten those? I bought them with my own pocket money. Those pants were so elegant and smooth, the legs and pockets fully lined, the corduroy soft and lush like the down of a baby chick. How well I remember them now!

In those pants, I was transformed—no longer the Sears-catalogue ugly duckling, but a radiant swan. I still had a dog-eared copy of These Happy Golden Years under one wing, my flute case under the other, but as I headed toward early-morning band practice, I discovered a new sensation. Airiness. I was rising high into the sky, far above the pedestrian fray. The petty comments, the mundanity of junior high school life seemed so small, like the tiny little specks of cars and trucks you see from the window of an ascending airplane. Triumphant and indomitable, I was soaring.

As wonderful as those corduroys made me feel, however, they were in no sense a social entrée for me, any more than the Fur Berry would be for Sara. The Sassoons did not lead to automatic acceptance in the popular girls’ group. What divided me from them was never those superficial differences—jeans, blue eye shadow, and pierced ears—but a different temperament, a different orientation. I loved books, handicrafts, and quiet contemplation, and disliked parties, alcohol, and all team sports, especially those involving a ball. In retrospect, my mother’s message about what really draws people together, or keeps them apart, was confirmed by my having the cords.

Still, having those pants empowered me. I was a girl who could wear a designer label just like the others. In this way, the pants had lost their power as a tool of social tyranny. The playing field was now even, if perhaps only temporarily. In my set of peers I was among equals, and my lifestyle was of my own choosing, not foisted upon me as a result of some kind of social or material inadequacy. While the designer pants hadn’t necessarily made me wiser, they had given me a much-needed boost in self-confidence.

A Fur Berry might do the same for Sara. My mother-in-law would surely disapprove of my acquiescing, and my mom, too. But how liberating it can be to do something that others might not approve of! After all, how many times a day do I utter the word “no,” to my kids? More times than I can count. I am constantly fighting against their basic human desires—their love of sugar and staying up late, their captivation with TV and any other kind of moving image, their pleasure in potty talk, and enjoyment of overfull bathtubs with bubbles overflowing. I am constantly trying to contain their yearnings in a tiny little box of decorum, good, solid values, and healthy habits that will help them build character, avoid illness and obesity, contribute to society, save the environment, and ensure a successful career and a happy marriage. It gets tiring sometimes. And what happens when it risks the self esteem of a six-year-old child incapable of understanding the virtue of controlling her desires.

At that moment I realize, my mind may not be made up, but my gut is. I stop weighing the pros and cons, and with the feel of those Sassoon corduroys swishing against my legs, I plunge on ahead, certain now of what I am going to do, even if I am not at all certain that it is right.

When I pick Sara up at school that afternoon, we head straight to the toy store. She chooses a furry yellowish, pinkish ball that opens into a bear and has the essence of apricot. Her eyes light up as she dangles the fruit from its string handle, then pops it open into a round-headed bear with floppy arms and legs. She squeezes it lovingly, her eyes brimming with gratitude and relief. I recognize the feeling as she dances down the street, swinging her Fur Berry. After weeks of trudging heavily along, she is carefree, light, and airy, equal to her peers; her destiny is in her own hands. What’s more she has something that just looks good and feels nice to cradle in her arms. She runs, she jumps. She is soaring.

Author’s Note: Shortly after this article was written, Sara’s teacher called a general meeting for all parents. Fur Berries were at the top of the agenda. Shocked by the numerous stories of Fur Berry-induced stress so many of us had to share, we parents took a vote, and Sara’s class became the first in her school to restrict bring-your-own-toy to Fridays only. A second (unanimous) vote banned Fur Berries once and forever from class 1/A. Where Fur Berries had been a dividing force among our children, they became a uniting force among us parents.

Sara is now in second grade. Fur Berries are still banned in her class, and no new toys have since bewitched any of our kids quite the way Fur Berries did. But if one ever does, I hope that we parents will be ready to join forces again.

Brain, Child (Spring, 2010)

About the Author: Lara Strong teaches English language and culture in a bi-lingual high school in Budapest, Hungary, where she has lived for the past fourteen years. She’s a member of the Budapest Writers’ Workshop, an informal group of amateur writers. Her work has also appeared in Literary Mama.

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Conversation Starters

Conversation Starters

By Catherine Buni

What happens when a small group of public school staff and parents start talking about preventing sex abuse?

Art Conversation StartersMelody Dillard is a parent who lives outside Hanover, New Hampshire. As a child, she attended Bernice A. Ray Elementary School in her town. Her child goes there now. Dillard is happy about this. “It was a place I could feel relief,” she said.

When she herself was in second grade, Dillard colored a crayon picture of a basement and several terrified children. “I know I was trying to tell someone I was being sexually abused,” she told me. “I always felt safe at the Ray School.” But no one ever asked her about the darkness she’d drawn. Thirty years ago, she said, no one talked about children’s sexual health and safety. Not even at the Ray School.

Susanna Carls teaches at the Ray School now, and, in late 2010, she sat in the office of Ray School counselor Pam Graham. Graham had convened a meeting with the K-1 teachers to review the year’s social emotional learning curriculum. The day was bright, but as Carls listened, she thought about students who, she felt, might be at risk, because of domestic violence, cultural resistance, economic hardship. She imagined children sitting in class in the aftermath of sexual assault, as she once had. She thought about the children’s fathers and mothers, what they might, or might not, be willing or able to notice or question, say or hide.

Carls (who has two children and asked that her real name not be used) had been a quiet, reliable student when she was a girl. She’d had several close friends, but they never talked about their bodies, their sexual health or safety. Nobody did, she told me. She used to pray at night.

Once, sitting next to her mother in the car, she’d said her prayer out loud.

“Please just divorce him.”

“I’m working on it,” her mother had said. First, she’d told her daughter, she needed to save more money.

“I could give you a reason,” Carls said, then held her breath. She felt sure her mother knew that something, something she didn’t know how to say herself, was wrong. But they rode on in silence, and for years her prayers went unanswered.

Where was her stepfather now? Carls had no idea. By the time she’d been able to grasp the crimes he’d committed against her, it was too late to press charges.

Now, listening to Pam Graham, her words full of care and purpose, Carls felt agitated. Is it ever a good time to press charges? One of Carls’ classroom parents was in the throes of a trial herself. During a recent parent-teacher conference, Melody Dillard (who also asked that a pseudonym be used to protect her family) had told Carls about the searing experience of testifying against her childhood abuser, about the relief of publicly stating the truth, about the heartfelt expressions of gratitude from some parents, but, from others, rejection and even rage. Carls felt suddenly clear. “I don’t know why we’re not dealing with sexual abuse,” she blurted. “Sexual abuse is part of my history, and I don’t want it to be part of other people’s histories.”

Graham listened carefully. In fact, only months before, she’d been trained as a crisis-line volunteer for the region’s domestic and sexual violence advocacy center, called WISE. On one of her first calls, she had found herself in the local ER, at 3:30 a.m., with a teenage girl who’d just been raped. When Graham arrived, the nurse had shrugged. “She’s in the shower,” she’d said. How could an ER nurse not know a rape victim should not shower until after the exam? Graham had asked herself in disbelief. How can we still know so little?

“Keeping it a secret didn’t work,” Susanna Carls was saying to her now. “I had hinted a lot, wishing someone would point blank ask me. I’d hoped someone else would bring it up. It took more than twenty years to get healthy again. Maybe it could’ve been only two.”

Maybe it could never have happened at all.

*     *     *     *     *

Reports of child sexual abuse have dropped 58 percent in the last two decades, says the field’s leading researcher, David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. More education, media exposure, and awareness, better law enforcement, better offender treatment and victim support, better psycho-pharmaceuticals, all have led to better guardianship. But even with the progress made, the numbers are still staggering. Estimates vary, depending on the source. According to Finkelhor’s 2011 research, some one in five girls (down from an estimated one in four) and one in twenty boys (down from an estimated one in six) will be sexually abused before the age of 18. Of the children abused by adults, some 40 percent will be under the age of six.

As I’ve seen at the Ray School, as we see in every community, regardless of location, ethnicity, class, or religion, it is statistically likely that every one of us is connected to people—colleagues, friends, and neighbors—who’ve experienced child sexual abuse, whether we hear about it or not. Of every 100 incidents of child sexual abuse, it is estimated that only 10 to 18 are reported to authorities.”How can we think of ourselves as having success,” asked Finkelhor in October, during a symposium hosted by the Seattle-based nonprofit Committee for Children titled “From Research to Practice: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse,” “when somebody can be molesting so many kids for such a long period, with so many people you would think would have done a good job outing him and didn’t?” The somebody he was referring to was Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky, who for at least fifteen years had groomed and assaulted children on campus under the cover of his colleagues’ silence.

A tipping point? Fueled by outrage, grief, and awareness, but also by threats of insurance loss and lawsuits–$60 million, Penn State’s penalty; 30 to 60 years, Sandusky’s sentence—individuals at youth-serving institutions across the country are flight-testing an emerging array of policies and programs that might help.

The country’s first sustained sexual violence prevention program is reported to have been introduced in 1976, after a nun from a Columbus, Ohio, parochial school learned that one of her second-graders had been raped. “She called a local agency, Women Against Rape, and asked for help, and, soon after, the Child Assault Prevention Project was born, built on the ground-breaking recognition that women and children share the same cultural status, a cultural status that supports epidemic levels of sexual violence against them, young and old alike.”

Nobody can say for sure how many schools and youth-serving institutions have introduced sexual violence prevention programming since, but we know the number is growing.

Some implement proactively, the Ray School, for instance, or the Unitarian Universalist Association, an early pioneer in both policy and programming, perhaps best known for its Our Whole Lives curriculum. Others implement in response to crisis—Boston’s Catholic schools, for one, which adopted Committee for Children’s Talking about Touching, a pre-K-3 program taught in 25,000 schools nationwide, after revelations of widespread abuse there. Some are introducing prevention because of state law, as is the case in Vermont, where 2009 legislation, called Act One, mandates all schools to implement sexual violence prevention as part of comprehensive health education, a national first. In some schools, of course, the topic remains taboo. In some schools, post-trauma crisis is the norm, immediate needs so great that looking upstream to prevention could be called a luxury.

Ideally, says Bridgid Normand, Committee for Children’s Program Development Manager, current research-based models are implemented systematically, and include policies and procedures for a safe school environment, training for all staff, parent engagement and education, and a child-focused curriculum. In reality, implementation is as varied as the educators themselves, their states and workplaces, politics and religion, with too many schools still relying on programs that focus on teaching children to protect themselves, perpetuating the notion that victims are somehow responsible for being assaulted. This, despite our newfound awareness of how effectively the grooming process silences children, and the obvious but recent shift towards the understanding that adults, not children, are responsible for keeping children safe.

Normand, along with Finkelhor, is quick to note that even the best prevention programming is still only one piece of a complicated puzzle. As the CDC frames prevention, from HIV/AIDS to obesity, all four pieces of what’s called the social-ecological model for change—Societal, Community, Relationship, and Individual—must be on the table to sustain long-term cultural change.

But while change in schools and other institutions that care for children is just one piece of the puzzle, it is an important one; some 55 million children go to school in the United States every day. The parent-educator connection is a powerful force—most educators are parents too—one that can be engaged with questions as simple as: What are your child safety policies and hiring practices? Do you offer training and instruction?

But what specific programs should schools implement? There is no clearinghouse of current best-practice curricula, says Carol Shakeshaft, Ph.D., a professor of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University who is developing an online training program focused on prevention of sexual abuse of students (1 in 10 students report being sexually victimized by school employees, she says, predominantly teachers and coaches). Different programs work for different communities, Shakeshaft says, depending on staffing, culture, and resources. Though some state departments of education track options and make recommendations, at this stage, she says, programs are often discovered by word of mouth, many times after calls to the experts—Deborah Donovan Rice, Executive Director of Stop It Now!, for instance. When their Helpline receives an inquiry about what a school can do in the younger grades, she says, they recommend Care for Kids, a pre-K-2 program developed in Canada now taught in 13 U.S. states. When Pam Graham from the Ray School called WISE in late 2010 and asked for help, it was Care for Kids that Kate Rohdenburg, WISE’s Program Manager, recommended too.

*     *     *     *     *

Two months later, on a rainy March evening in 2011, Rohdenburg stood at the front of the Ray School auditorium. She’d wrapped a cloud-gray scarf around her shoulders, and, hands clasped behind her back, waited for the mothers and fathers to settle in. Susanna Carls sat on the sidelines with Pam Graham, several other staff, and the school’s principal, Matt Laramie, a parent of three who’d supported Graham’s call to WISE for counsel.

“How do we prevent sexual violence?” Rohdenburg, 26, began, after a brief introduction.

She scanned for hands. More than seventy percent of the Ray School’s mothers and fathers held advanced degrees. They worked nearby at Dartmouth College, at the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab, at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Memorial Hospital. More than fifty mothers and fathers had turned out, but none raised a hand.

“Well,” Rohdenburg said, “how do we promote healthy relationships?”

More silence. “With Care for Kids,” Rohdenburg continued, “we’re trying to teach young kids and the adults who take care of them communication, empathy and reinforce protective skills, to recognize and reinforce positive interactions. Talking about healthy sexuality is an ongoing conversation, sort of like sneaking in veggies—by the time they’re teenagers they don’t want to talk to you anymore, but, if you start now, you’ll have already gotten all the good stuff in them.”

The parents laughed. A good break. Another good start.

*     *     *     *     *

“Care for Kids is about life skills, not sex,” Rohdenburg is careful to say early in her Care for Kids parent presentations, a foundational piece of the program, in addition to weekly parent take-home and exercises once classes begin. Rohdenburg does not teach what we call sex ed—not the definition of intercourse, not techniques of contraception, not protections against STDs—a critical fact of her funding, which is earmarked for prevention. She does not speak about bad touches or bad people.

Care for Kids teaches kids the language and skills of empathy and consent, in age-appropriate ways and over time, says Linda Johnson, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont, from her office in Montpelier, the national training and distribution center for Care for Kids, where Rohdenburg herself was trained. These are skills necessary for any healthy relationship, skills demonstrated to prevent offending behaviors.

Care for Kids also teaches teachers and parents how to look for signs and symptoms, how to address children’s questions and responses, and how to teach children healthy, empathic interpersonal behaviors. But, says Johnson, for adults to master these skills, they must first acknowledge and address their own discomfort that feeds the silence that covers for child sexual violence.

And so, Rohdenburg said to the Ray School parents next, “I want you to think about the first messages you ever got about sexuality.”

At first the room was quiet. But then, slowly, the parents started to whisper and laugh, lift up spectacles and wipe their eyes.

“Who wants to share?” Rohdenburg asked.

A woman threw up a hand. “I was walking home from junior high school,” she said, ” and a guy in a car pulls up next to me and asks if I can give him a—blow job.”

There was a burst of laughter.

“For $50, he said. I thought he wanted his car washed. I said, ‘No thanks,’ but he kept asking if I’d give him a blow job. He finally drove away. It took me a week to figure it out. I talked to a friend…I would have never talked to my mother.”

“I remember Playboy was around the house like the New Yorker,” a man said. “There was never any acknowledgement of it…we all just silently took it in. Nobody ever talked about sex, and it was just lying around everywhere.”

“And we’ve got the Internet now,” said Rohdenburg.

“When I was a kid,” another woman jumped in, “my parents talked to me about stranger-danger…But it’s not a stranger, it’s a teacher or a coach.”

“And we talk to strangers all the time!” said Rohdenburg, “so we’re not modeling that behavior for our kids. It’s confusing.”

*     *     *     *     *

It is confusing. Why do so many seemingly normal people sexually assault children? The research suggests that there is no one reason why sex offenders abuse. Media focus on creepy predators lurking in locker room showers or on the Internet, but they are the exception. One study indicates 34 percent of offenders are family members, 59 percent acquaintances. Upward of 94 percent are male, with 30 to 50 percent still children or adolescents themselves. “Not all people who abuse are the same and not all of the reasons they abuse are the same,” says Joan Tabachnick, a national consultant on offender treatment. “Some people are sexually attracted to young children. Some abuse because they have access to children and are drinking, depressed, jealous or just need comfort. Some are developmentally delayed and don’t understand the implications of what they do. Some are psychopaths. Some have grown up in a culture where the signs of sexual abuse are ignored and somehow justify to themselves that it is okay.” What we do know, says Tabachnick, is that the cost of child sexual abuse is huge, both socially and economically. We know that when an organization or a community creates a culture where sexual abuse is talked about and not tolerated, where inappropriate behaviors are discussed and addressed through organizational policies, and adults are educated about healthy sexual development—people are less likely to offend. Some may even get help. Some, of course, simply move on to places where silence is still the norm.

Despite prevention’s complicated, unfolding terrain, Rohdenburg is confident, hopeful even. She says she believes a culture that rejects violence against children and women is possible. But every so often, she lets slip a burst of exasperation. “When eighteen American boys and men rape an 11-year-old girl in Texas, we talk about what clothes she wore?” she’ll say. “That the 18 men who raped the 11-year-old-girl will have to ‘live with this the rest of their lives?” And what was it Penn State’s Joe Paterno said on his way out? Oh, yes. “The kids that were victims of whatever they want to say, I think we all ought to say a prayer for them.'”

“Say a prayer?” Rohdenburg highpitches. “Freakin’ do something.”

Mostly, Rohdenburg asks a lot of good questions. Her favorite, and I’ve found you can ask it of anybody, anywhere, is “Does that make sense?”

*     *     *     *     *

Rohdenburg checked her watch. It was getting late. She opened the floor to questions. “What if a child falsely reports?” (False reports are rare, though the question is important, because we must keep adults safe as well as children.) “What, exactly, will you teach?” (Six lessons: Bodies; Babies; Feelings; Bedtime; Touching; Secrets and Surprises.) “Is there a version for Catholic schools?” (Yes.) For almost an hour, Rohdenburg and Graham fielded questions. And then someone asked, “How do we know it works?”

The parents waited for an answer, an answer even the experts are still tracking. As Finkelhor puts it, researchers are working in an environment of “evidentiary chaos.” The adult responsibility focused programs being adopted across the country are, however, showing evidence of strengthening protective factors and decreasing the likelihood of child sexual abuse. They are improving hiring practices and reporting, parent-child communication, social and emotional competence, and resilience for both parents and children. Research is showing increased sense of personal efficacy for kids, more positive body image and attitude, and, for those who’ve been abused, a decrease in self-blame. “Knowing that recent improvements have come while we’ve had school based programs in place,” Finkelhor says, “it makes good sense to continue using and improving them.”

But the parent asked again, “How do we know it works?”

Off to one side, Susanna Carls stood up. For a moment, she said nothing, just stood there in the silence, the color in her cheeks rising. “To me,” she finally said, “if there are kids who are helped, great.” The parent made no response. “Teachers will be present for all of this,” Carls continued. “If there’s a child who’s uncomfortable, we’ll call the parent. . .” she paused, and, for a moment, Carls and the parent simply looked at one another. That’s when she said, “I was sexually abused as a girl. I didn’t say anything for years. I wish I’d been given a voice. I wish someone would have talked about it.” She sat down, and the room filled with quiet words of wonder and realization and sympathy. Thank you and Oh and I’m sorry.

After Rohdenburg’s presentation, the parents lingered. They lined up and asked more questions. And then, tucking away their handouts—about healthy relationships, who to call with questions or concerns—the parents headed home.

A month later, in April, Rohdenburg returned to the Ray School. Of eighty families, three had opted out of the program. Two families cited religious reasons, Graham said, and one parent created her own prevention curriculum, which Graham admired—families are, after all children’s most important teachers. In the perfect world, every kid would come home every day to a CDC-ideal “safe, stable, and nurturing environment,” to a parent or two who understands healthy sexuality and is not afraid to talk about it.

From what I saw during Rohdenburg’s “Touching” classes in May, kids really like Rohdenburg. Rohdenburg really likes kids. She is not afraid of the prospect of their mutiny. More important, she is not frightened by the fact of their sexuality.

“Hi, everyone!” she said, opening one class, “Do you remember me?”

“Yes!” Seventeen children yelled happily back, a strong signal of the connection and comfort needed to effectively teach the Care for Kids’ content.

“Last week,” said Rohdenburg, “we gave a baby a bath!” Her scarf was sparkly this day, the colors of a peacock feather.

“Do you have the dolls today?!” a child asked excitedly.

The kids had clearly loved giving “baths” to their plastic baby dolls, one boy, one girl, one beige, one brown, during their “Babies” class—Babies need help with most things and deserve to be looked after. Children, as they grown, learn to do more things by themselves, but they still need some help.

For a minute or two, Rohdenburg named body parts, and kids called back. “Public!” “Private!” “Public!” “Private!” Elbow, penis, shoulder, buttocks, nose, vagina. They’d learned the Bodies’ lesson two weeks before—Our bodies are good and special and deserve care and respect (including our private parts). Boys and girls have many parts that are the same and some that are different.

A child shouted. “We need a special soap! If it gets in your eyes it doesn’t hurt!”

“Once a spicy noodle went in my eye!” called out another, wiping his face and sticking a dirty finger in his mouth.

Rohdenburg crinkled her nose. “Owwww,” she said. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

The kindergarteners and first graders of the Ray School’s K-1 classes spoke boisterously and often and out of turn. They jumped up during circle time, skipped to the recycling bin without asking. Rohdenburg listened and let them roam.

On occasion, a teacher strode into Rohdenburg’s circle. “They’re not usually like this,” one said. “They’re excited to have a guest speaker,” explained another. In one of the four “Touching” classes I observed—Sometimes we like touching and sometimes we don’t. Touching is never a secret. Any person can say “no” to touching. Don’t touch a person who says “No touching.”—one teacher turned the classroom over to Rohdenburg entirely, allowing the children what Rohdenburg calls “agency.”

In every class, Rohdenburg handed each child a colorful strip of construction paper, a yard long. Each child traced his or her hand, cut out the tracings, and then stapled one raggedy-edged cutout hand to each end of the paper strip. When asked, they flew from their tables, paper arms flapping, and formed a circle. They took turns asking a classmate if a paper hug or handshake or high five would be okay. “Can I hug you?” they asked, their age-appropriate lesson in consent. “Is it okay if I hug you?”

It’s not proof, it’s not evidence, but it was hard not to notice that in the one classroom where complete freedom of expression, or “agency,” was allowed by adults, most of the children, when asked by a classmate if they could be “hugged” said, “No.” They opted for a high-five or a handshake instead. In the classrooms where adults exercised control over the children’s speech and bodies—”1, 2, 3, eyes on me!” “Raise your hand!” “Sit down!”—all but a few children answered the question “Can I hug you?” with a quiet “Yes.” How young we are taught to meet expectation. What expectations, then, to teach?

*     *     *     *     *

I return a year later, in spring 2012, and watch Graham teach the class called “Feelings”—Everyone has all kinds of feelings. When you are not sure what you are feeling, we called that “mixed up” or “confused.”—and another called “Secrets and Surprises”—Sometimes we want to keep a secret, sometimes we don’t. Touching is never a secret. When you are sad or confused because someone asked you to keep a secret, you can ask two or three grownups for help. Graham tells me afterward, “I do my best to let the children express themselves fully.” There’s more to do, she says. She’s using the school resource guide that accompanies Vermont’s Act One to guide her. They want to integrate programming in older grades. Introduce more staff training. Better parent training, perhaps in smaller groups for comfort. Were there staff or parents who sought help from WISE or Stop It Now! or another resource? Were some children spared abuse because the culture of the Ray School community was changing? She doesn’t know. She says that since the Ray School has begun integrating sexual violence prevention, other colleagues have shared stories of their own survival of sexual abuse as children. Two kindergarteners have made disclosures to their mothers, both of whom called Graham, a mother herself, so they could work together.

Says Matt Laramie, the Ray School’s Principal, “When you see the cycle broken, this early, it’s joyful.” Says Melody Dillard, the parent who’d sat in the Ray School’s classrooms a generation ago, waiting for someone to speak. “This is how things are supposed to be.”

About the Author: Catherine Buni writes about the environment, education, and health – and the wild places where they meet – from her home office in central Vermont. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Outside Magazine’s Family Adventure Guide, and WorldHum, among others. Read more of Catherine’s work at

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Revising Ophelia


True story: Abby, age ten, is on the playground after school, reading out to some of us mothers bits of her essay on why single-sex education is good for middle school girls.

When I ask her if girls might not be better off mixing it up academically with boys, just as they’ll have to one day in the real world, I am beset. Don’t I know that girls suffer a precipitous drop in self-esteem the moment adolescence hits? Don’t I know boys harass them in the halls and intimidate them in the classroom? Don’t I know science and math teachers ignore girls and call only on boys?

I should keep my mouth shut, but I can’t resist. “Omigod, are we still picking on those poor science teachers? That is so ’90s!”

Nobody laughs. I think someone actually puts her hands on her hips. “Didn’t you read Reviving Ophelia?” she demands.

Ah, Ophelia.

It’s been ten years since child psychologist Mary Pipher published Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. In that decade, “Ophelia” has become universal shorthand not for Hamlet’s mopey girlfriend–though that’s who we see floating on the cover in a sea of water lilies–but for a soul-destroying culture that “limits girls’ development, truncates their wholeness and leaves many of them traumatized,” as Pipher wrote in her introduction.

But here’s what’s disturbing: ten years after its debut–the lifetime, as it turns out, of an adolescent girl–Ophelia still sells between 45,000 and 50,000 copies each year. That’s fifty thousand new copies to parents who presumably wouldn’t dream of relying on an old edition of What to Expect… or a Penelope Leach book from another millennium.

This is dangerous business, I think. It’s undeniable that Reviving Ophelia played the pivotal role in inspiring teachers, parents, health advocates and others to fight back against gender bias, sexual harassment, and “girl-poisoning” popular culture.

But it’s equally undeniable that we shouldn’t be reading it–or is that obsessing on it?–anymore. Read the actual book, as I did recently, and you’ll find it’s badly dated and, in places, needlessly inflammatory, and we can’t help today’s teens of either gender by relying on old information. It’s time to thank Ophelia for all her good work and come back to our own decade.


Mary Pipher says she never expected Ophelia to be a hit. It wasn’t until the paperback was issued in 1996 that sales truly took off. “It was a slow-building book. Nobody expected it to do much of anything,” Pipher recalls, speaking from her home in Nebraska, where she still maintains a clinical practice, teaches part time, and updates a web site ( to apprise fans on her latest writings.

Instead, the book did something big: it hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and went on to spend three years there. Almost two million copies of the paperback edition alone are in print.

Drawing on and expanding upon earlier work on girls like Carol Gilligan’s Meeting at the Crossroads and the American Association of University Women’s 1992 study How Schools Shortchange Girls, Reviving Ophelia kick-started a wave of girl-centric activism that’s still going strong.

Reviving Ophelia started a dialogue about adolescence that wasn’t there before,” says Rachel Muir, who was inspired by Ophelia to form Girlstart Inc., an Austin-based program dedicated to narrowing the digital divide between boys and girls in the classroom. “Ophelia validated an entire girls’ movement by asking us to take a look at how we shape society for girls, to look at the pressure girls are under.”

But Ophelia the book, as distinct from Ophelia the movement, hasn’t kept pace with the changes it brought about.

Reviving Ophelia was never strong on facts to begin with–the book has no footnotes and little attribution–and those facts are now twelve or more years out of date. To cite just two of many examples, Pipher claims at one point that “sexual and physical assaults on girls are at an all-time high,” but references no statistics. Surely–taking into account ages past when women and girls were considered property and incest and rape weren’t crimes–surely Pipher meant reports of sexual assault were on the rise, which can even be a good thing if that means girls and their advocates are gaining the courage to speak up and out against sexual crimes.

Elsewhere, Pipher casually lets drop that girls are “growing up in a world where one in four women will be raped in her lifetime.” Again, the number isn’t referenced, and ten years on, when asked, Pipher can’t recall where it came from (and shouldn’t, in all fairness, be expected to remember now).

But if that statistic, shocking as it is, were ever true, it’s not true now. The Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the number at one in six, and that’s for sexual assault and attempted assault combined, which means the number of actual rapes is even lower.

I’m not suggesting the girls’ movement has run its course–in the week this article was written, two football players in Massachusetts were charged with raping a fifteen-year-old classmate; voters in Ohio told pollsters they couldn’t vote for John Kerry because his wife was not sufficiently “ladylike”; and a teenaged actress rumored to have already had breast implants posed with shirt up and thong pulled down past her pubic bone for the cover of a magazine read by men in their thirties and forties.

Yes, we still have work to do. But wallowing in outdated and possibly inflammatory numbers won’t help us make our daughters any safer or secure; it only makes us, and them, feel hysterical, or paralyzed, or both. And that paralysis can stop us from acknowledging the very real progress we’ve made in the past decade and being able to meet head-on a changing crop of girl-relevant issues as they emerge today.

Progress has been significant. Girlstart and programs like it across the country mentor girls in math and science. Bullying and sexual harassment education raises awareness among teachers, administrators, and students in middle school and high school. Health services reach out to girls who otherwise have little or no access to information about their changing bodies. And publications like New Moon, an advertising-free magazine written by girls for girls, presents girls in their most formative years with an alternate view of themselves from what they see in the mainstream media.

Experts on adolescent issues that I spoke with–Andrea Prejean, the National Education Association’s specialist in mathematics/science student achievement, and Angela Diaz, MD, director of the Mt. Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York City, to name just two–agree that, while we still have a long way to go, we’ve made dramatic headway in bettering girls’ lives the past ten years.

Many more girls are taking math, science, and computer science in middle and high school. Mortality, deaths from firearms, cigarette use, binge drinking, and illicit use of drugs are all on the decline among adolescents in the 1990s and into the early part of the new century.

On the downside, very young teens are becoming sexualized at an earlier and earlier age, says Diaz, and many teens of either gender lack adequate access to health services close to where they live and go to school. And while there’s been little decline in eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia in the past decade, there’s been an increase in childhood and adolescent obesity so sharp it’s been labeled an epidemic.

None of this news, good or bad, will get through to the fifty thousand people who buy Reviving Ophelia this year, simply because none of it’s in there. Pipher has never revised the book; she has turned her scholarly attentions elsewhere, publishing books on elders, refugees, and psychotherapy itself.


So why can’t we turn our attention elsewhere? Why can’t we stop reading Ophelia? Because the book, in its enormous popularity, trained us a bit too well to pathologize teenage girlhood, to view every adolescence as an ongoing, irrefutable crisis. Wrapped inside Ophelia‘s “empower and protect” message is a darker theme, one that appeals in a forbidden kind of way to moms who aren’t ready to let go: your girl is helpless and under attack. A healthy, normally developing teen, after all, will naturally begin to turn away from her parents–even her loving mom–in favor of her friends and her teen-girl culture. But a girl in crisis, well, she still needs you, doesn’t she!

Intentionally or not, Pipher repeatedly reinforces this message. “[Vegetarianism] is popular with girls because they so easily identify with the lack of speech and powerlessness of animals,” she writes in Ophelia. Oh, dear, it’s the teen girl as veal calf, boxed up helplessly in her pen and set upon by enemies of every stripe–boys/men, society/culture, advertising/media, divorced/working parents and those awful, unenlightened science teachers.

This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of girls in our country who aren’t yet hearing the Girl Power message–read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family for an account of one such untouched neighborhood and the trials of the teen girls who live there. But inner-city and rural/poor moms aren’t the ones buying Ophelia, I suspect, nor the aftermarket of books by other authors that followed in Ophelia‘s wake–Ophelia Speaks, Surviving Ophelia, Ophelia’s Mom, and so on.

No, these book buyers are much more likely educated, hands-on parents out to give their girls every advantage–even if that means schooling them in potential disadvantages before they’re even out of American Girl dolls. Thus we get the specter of Abby on the playground, precociously reciting all the woe that awaits her with the same efficient good cheer that she tackles dance lessons, piano, tennis, and debate club.


As Pipher’s original call to arms has morphed into something more fetishistic, the teen-girl book market has only picked up speed, minus the activism. The second wave of books center not so much on the sexist indignities of the world as on the slings and arrows girls suffer at the hands of other girls–a phenomenon known in the industry as “girl-on-girl aggression.”

Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons (2002); Mean Girls by Hayley DiMarco (2004); Mean Chick, Cliques and Dirt Tricks by Erika V. Shearin Karnes (2004), and the queen bee of the genre, Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees & Wannabes (2002), all document the carnivorous ways those poor veal calves are able to tear one another to shreds.

In Queen Bees & Wannabes, and in the Empower seminars that she conducts at middle schools and high schools, Wiseman delineates in anthropological detail the seven kinds of teen girl and their supposed behaviors. “Queen Bees,” for example, use fear and control to rule their cliques. “Bankers” create chaos in the hierarchy by hoarding and then strategically releasing information about other girls. “Wannabes,” “Targets,” “Torn Bystanders” . . . you might be able to guess at their roles; if not, Wiseman is right there with pages of description on each, the better to help you figure out which role your daughter plays in her school.

To go with these girl types are nine varieties of boys (from “Desperate Annoying Guy” to “Good-Boy Jock”), and as for you, hapless parent that you are, Wiseman lists off a whopping twelve different kinds of parenting styles, only one of which, alarmingly, passes muster in her opinion. (Congratulations, all you “Loving Hard-Ass” parents.)

At first read, this seems like just the book a teen and her mom could use to figure out why she’s on top of the world one day and cast out the next. So mesmerizing is Queen Bees, in fact, that it takes awhile to realize how deeply cynical and sexist this book is. Wiseman’s willingness to rigidly categorize people, her unapologetic enumeration of ages-old attributes of social acceptance, and her laser-like dissection of the smallest of social interactions is all very, well, high school. It’s a book about queen bees written in the style of a queen bee–authoritative and unquestioning–maybe even by a queen bee, that winds up validating the importance of the social hierarchy it claims to debunk.

You might very well be able to steer your daughter through the treacherous waters of adolescence following Wiseman’s morally relativistic advice, but what kind of young woman she’ll be when she reaches the far shore is still very much up for grabs.


While we’ve spent the past decade chasing the bogeyman in the science classroom and unraveling the mysteries of teen tribes under Wiseman’s tutelage, another group, a mammoth, well-organized, deep-pocketed, truly scary and worthy opponent has been working with tireless efficiency to mess with the heads of teen girls and create strife in their homes.

They’re marketers, and if you think you’ve already heard the yadda yadda about the evils of Barbie and Seventeen magazine, it’s time to take another, closer look. Since 1992, marketing aimed at children, including teens, has increased by two-and-a-half times. It now amounts to some $15 billion annually, according to the New York Times.

Pipher complained about marketing’s ill effects on teen girls in Ophelia, and today says she believes it’s the single most significant element of girls’ lives that’s gotten markedly worse since she published her book. “If anything, girls are even more targeted by vicious consumerism, branding, and marketing. The message is, if you don’t own these products, you cannot love yourself,” says Pipher.

“I think it’s a terrible thing to do to young people.”

As always, there are people who want to sell anxious parents books about this burgeoning threat, and indeed, the past eighteen months has seen the advent of tomes like Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers by Alissa Quart (2003), Born To Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet Schor (2004) (excerpted in Brain, Child’s Summer 2004 issue) and Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood by Susan Linn (2004).

We’ve all heard by now that teenaged girls are particularly vulnerable to the effects of advertising, marketing, and media messages, but in Linn’s book at last we find the answer to why that’s so. The chain of vulnerability goes something like this: Children are being exposed to material ostensibly intended for adults earlier and earlier in their lives–c.f. the Coors twins, Sex in the City reruns, and thongs for ten-year-olds. Meanwhile, physically, girls are going into puberty at a younger age, but their emotional development isn’t keeping pace. When they look to the culture around them for cues on how to act, they find MTV, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Maybelline ready and waiting.

Linn’s book doesn’t focus solely on girls, or teens, but chapters on food marketing, the alcohol and tobacco juggernauts, and sex as a commodity strike at the heart of the pressures teenaged girls feel to simultaneously conform and rebel. Linn explains just why Barbie has the influence she does over the way girls feel about their bodies; makes the connection between obesity, anorexia/bulima, and food marketing; and exposes the subtle ways the tobacco industry gets the message out to girls that smoking will keep their weight down.

Perhaps most tragically, marketers have benefited handsomely–and cynically–from the girls’ movement, co-opting its message of hope and empowerment to move products off the shelves.

“The media is worse, more sexist, more limiting in how it portrays girls than it was even ten years ago,” asserts Nancy Gruver, who founded New Moon magazine in 1992. “Before, we had benign neglect. There was not a lot of focus on girls. Now they’ve co-opted our message. Now girl power is about what kind of lip gloss you wear.”

There we have it. In ten short years, we’ve leapt from girl-as-victim to girl-as-power-shopper. Linn’s call to arms–that all marketing toward children should be banned–is of particular import to people who care about girls, because girls can’t and won’t flourish without space to make their own creative decisions apart from the impervious, insistent marketplace.

What Ophelia helped to start–a movement to empower girls–has been hijacked by marketers who are a more potent threat to girls’ developing creativity and self-esteem than some bumbling science teacher will ever be. IM to Ophelia: Get out of that weed bath, girlfriend, we’ve still got work to do.

Author’s Note: The more pop/psych/parenting books I read, the more deeply I am coming to mistrust the whole genre. At best, they rob you of perspective; at worst, they induce parental paranoia. As an antidote, try a broader take on girls in the world, like Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, or Catherine Hardwicke’s 2002 movie, Thirteen.

Brain, Child (Winter, 2005)

About the Author: Tracy Mayor is a long-time contributor to Brain, Child. She is the author of the parenting-humor book Mommy Prayers. Follow her on Twitter@mommyprayers. Stacey Evers contributed research for this article.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Don’t Speak

By Liam Callanan

My youngest daughter, almost two, won’t speak.

It’s a problem, but not much of one, the pediatrician tells us—or rather, that’s what her mouth tells us. Her eyes betray a little more—I’m not worried now, but will be the next time we meet.

I don’t have to wait. I’m worried now. Maybe it’s perfectly normal for one’s child not to be a fluent communicator by eighteen months, but in our house it’s not. She has two older sisters who said more sooner, and worse yet, my baby girl’s father—me—is a fiction writer. If she makes it age two or twenty or beyond unable to catch a fly ball, fine. But she has to speak.

Right now, though, only the doctor’s speaking, and she says: Be patient.


Patience is a precious commodity in our house—Jane is the fourth of four girls. It may be that she’s not spoken yet because she’s not been able to get a word in edgewise.

And if the math is tripping you up at this point (1 baby + 2 older sisters = 4?), don’t worry—arithmetic is another problem area for us. Jane is our fourth child, but only the third we brought home from the hospital. She was born in 2007, her sister Honor in 2002, and Mary in 2000. Lucy was born February 19, 1998, and by the time I got to hold her in the hospital, she was already still and quiet. You have no idea how beautiful she was—or how quiet that room was. Up and down the hall, babies cried, mothers shouted, doctors and nurses called to each other. Anyone entering our room quickly fell quiet as soon as they saw the yellow rose a cautious nurse had taped to our door: hospital code for what had happened within.

We couldn’t be so oblique with our daughters. Instead, we followed the advice of experts and told them about Lucy directly. Just the minimum, we were told: Don’t overwhelm them. So we didn’t. But our girls occasionally overwhelm us. Every February, Mary, our oldest, reminds us that it’s time to buy the crib we purchase and donate each year on Lucy’s birthday. Honor, who inspires her teachers to ever-more elaborate euphemisms—”spirited,” “lively,” and, my favorite, “capable of extreme leadership”—will sometimes tell strangers in line at the grocery store about her “stone sister” (as in gravestone?) “who doesn’t speak.”

On the other hand, Honor will sometimes try to egg Jane into speaking in various public situations—which Jane never does. She smiles shyly, giggles or points, but she doesn’t otherwise greet the cashier or, say, the person behind her at church, or the other child on the playground.


At home, Jane’s a bit more loquacious. We’ve assured the doctor that we do hear “Mommy” and “Daddy,” and for a while, we were quite certain that her first official word would be “cheese,” which was fine with me. A word’s a word, and Jane was our first child to be born in Wisconsin. It would make a good story. But then cheese retreated, and Daddy melted into “Diddy” and then I started noticing that both I and Dora the Explorer went by “Diddy.” Then Dora’s friend Boots the Monkey, too. That’s not a good sign, I thought, but couldn’t think of a way to share that with the pediatrician: My daughter confuses me for a small lavender monkey.


Be patient, the doctor says, and we are, even though these are the months of the “language explosion” when other children—especially, it seems, the children of parents who blog—are learning a hundred words a day, and in multiple languages. That our doctor isn’t concerned yet is frustrating, but also reassuring. One of the things I like about her is her slowness to panic. When she asked Honor at age five to draw a self-portrait on her clipboard (I confess I don’t remember this diagnostic test from when I was a kid), and Honor instead drew a thigh-high stiletto boot and went to the other side of the form and marked “yes” beside all the “Abnormal Mental Health Symptoms” before we could get the pen away from her, our doctor did not commit Honor—or her parents—to an asylum. She smiled and said Honor was precocious and that she’d see her next year. She did, and Honor brought her a beautiful, full-length self-portrait—ponytail, crown, stiletto boots and all.


But the girls have always been good with doctors. Once, when the pediatrician finally did hit the panic button and send us to the Children’s Hospital emergency room—it was midnight, and Mary, seven, had been throwing up for twenty-four hours straight—we found ourselves in an exam room with a nurse practitioner who was going through her triage sheet. Midnight, and my daughter hadn’t kept anything down for more than a day, and had never been up this late in her life: “Would you say she’s acting … playful?” the NPT said. Mary’s head lolled against my chest. I didn’t answer. Two hours later, when the IV saline solution drip had miraculously restored her, the NPT returned to check on us. She whispered to me over the tubes and beeping: “How’s she feeling?” Before I could answer, Mary opened her eyes from her two a.m. nap and said just one word: “playful.”


In short, Mary and Honor are not shy—nor ever at a loss for words. When I told them I was reading at a local bookstore, they both asked what their role would be—they couldn’t imagine not having one. Since I’m still learning what it is to be a writer, and parent, and writer-parent, I said they could do whatever they wanted. Honor spun like a ballerina, fell, rose, and then curtsied to broad applause. Mary read a story that consisted of two lines: “I like chocolate. If you like chocolate, raise your hand.” When the entire audience did, she smiled and both girls gave me a look that very clearly said, Top that, Dad.

Of course, I’ve learned there is no topping them. What do you say when your six-year-old wakes you just before dawn, whispering at your bedside in the cold dark, Dad, I need a stapler? Or, when you’re invited to your daughter’s third-grade class to talk about “what writers do,” and after answering polite questions like Do you have a limousine? and Do you think of the words or pictures first?, Mary asks, “Dad, why are you so wild at home, and normal here?”


What could I say? That at home, I like plugging my iPod into the stereo and blasting whatever comes out so my girls and I can dance like popcorn in a kettle, because I spend all day very, very quietly sitting at a desk and talking to no one? That I’m wild with them—talking, tickling, tackling—because they’re so funny and so fun? That I will, and have, taken them to New York or Chicago or a random city some Saturday because life is short, and I’ve never been patient enough to wait for the adventures to come to me?

Or that I love talking a wild blue streak with them, dancing until we drop, because there was a day—a lonely cold one in February—that I thought I would never know a noisy life, that I thought my first daughter, so pretty, so silent, would also be my last.

Jane is our last.

Every milestone of hers that passes—smiling, sitting up, crawling, walking—is bittersweet. I already dread the day I dismantle the crib—the one we bought for Lucy, the one we’ve used for each girl since—and take it to Goodwill instead of storage.

And maybe Jane senses this in me. I wouldn’t be surprised if she understands everything we say. Maybe Jane knows that that first word will also be a last hallmark. Maybe she’s waiting.

Her sisters aren’t, of course. Honor has decided we’re aiming too low—she sits Jane down with chapter books, tries to get her to repeat words like “conversation” and “tiara.” Mary, meanwhile, recently completed a worksheet that asked her to predict the future. She came up with a list that included “boys will like Barbies,” “people will drive plastic cars,” and—”your first word will be fiction.”


Author’s Note: Jane loves fiction, loves cuddling with a book any time of day. And sometimes afterward, she will speak—low, steady, earnest, but absolutely unintelligible whispers that she sometimes punctuates by patting my cheek or nose. I want to ask Mary what she’s saying. Or, for that matter, Honor. I want to ask Jane. I want to ask Lucy. I want to ask all my girls if what I do all day as a writer is so different from what I do as a parent—imagine what might be, what could have been, and patiently, quietly, wait for the words to come.

Brain, Child (Winter 2010)

About the Author: Liam Callanan’s novels include All Saints and The Cloud Atlas. He coordinates the Ph.D. program in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He’s on the web at


Hola, Jerry! Donde esta George?

Hola, Jerry! Donde esta George?


Hola Jerry!The year we lived in Costa Rica, our kids’ school had a year-round calendar. Hannah, Harry, and Ivy got a month off at Christmas and one in June; the rest of the year, school ran in six-week sessions with a week’s break between. This worked out brilliantly for traveling purposes, getting us down the mountain and out to explore Central America at regular intervals.

We’d been in Monteverde six weeks and a day when, in early September, the kids, their dad, and I headed out of Costa Rica for a week of intensive Spanish in Nicaragua. My criteria for selection had been “the least expensive school in Nicaragua that we can reach by bus in a day.”

By then, we’d lived in Monteverde just long enough to get a blast of what many Ticos—a friendly, non-pejorative term for Costa Ricans—feel toward Nicaragua and its people: disdain at best, hatred at worst. Ticos we knew seemed to feel that Nicaragua, with its poverty and its dictators and its poverty and its lack of infrastructure and its poverty, poverty, poverty, was an embarrassment to all of Central America. They wished Nicaragua would get its shit together. They wished Nicaragua would educate its citizens, brush its collective teeth, and stop being so poor all the time. They despised the Nicaraguan immigrants who sneaked across the border to steal the crappiest Costa Rican jobs, use Costa Rican social services, and molest Costa Rican women.

The kids’ Spanish tutor in Monteverde, provided by the school to help them until they were fluent enough to get by, scolded anyone she caught lazily dropping the terminal s from words:“No somos Nica!”

Ticos say “Nica” the way Arizonans say “wetback.”

We’d come from Seattle, where two full-time jobs plus three full-time kids had equaled a joyful yet frenetic life. My husband Anthony and I wanted to slow it down. Plus, there were things we wanted our kids to know that our current life wasn’t going to teach. Everything from “happiness is attainable without Select Soccer” to Spanish. A few months back we had quit our jobs, crossed our trembling fingers, and jumped. The money part wasn’t easy but it was surprisingly doable. Cost-of-living differences worked in our favor, and we were able to rent out our house for more than our mortgage payment. If we could keep our expenses to that difference, we’d come out of the year even (jobless, yes, but even). And here we were.

Going into the year, I’d wanted us to learn, learn, learn. Our vacations would be fun, natch, but also educational; we’d use these one-week stints to learn the history, current events, and culture of Central America. We’d see what needed changing in the world, and we’d be on fire to start. Possibly, we’d have Central America fixed right up by the end of the year. Nicaragua seemed like the perfect kickoff.

And so, against the advice of our new Tico friends, we went.

We left Monteverde at dawn. A rickety public bus bounced us down the rocky mountain road, dropping us at a small, unlabeled bus stop along the Pan-American Highway. We waited there for the air-conditioned, higher-end coach that would take us across the border at Penas Blancas. With the help of a boy about ten years old, we negotiated the border process and changed our Costa Rican colones for Nicaraguan Cordobas. As soon as our bus got under way, it was clear we were somewhere else. Nicaragua seemed hotter. Dogs ate garbage at the side of the road. Back among the trees, we could see houses constructed of tarps and scraps of tin.

Ivy had climbed on to Anthony’s lap. “Look! Doggies! They’re so cute! I want to pet them!” she said. Anthony looked at me, but I didn’t know what to say, either. The dogs looked exactly the way I’d always imagined the rabid dog that Atticus shoots, just a little to the left of right between the eyes.

“Sorry, Sweetie,” Anthony told Ivy. “But the bus doesn’t stop for another little while.”

We arrived in Masaya, in Southern Nicaragua, in the late afternoon. From there a taxi took us to the school. Harry had just enough Spanish to tell the taxista where we wanted to go.

The main school building turned out to be a large wooden house that overlooked La Laguna de Apoyo, a creepily warm, pondish kind of thing.. A concrete outbuilding would house our family for the week, bunkbeds in a bunker about twelve feet square. Given that the North American school year had just started, the school was virtually empty, and our family would be the major voting bloc. For the first two days we shared breakfast with another couple, who were replaced toward the end of the week with three backpackers.

Each morning, we practiced Spanish with individual tutors for four hours—although for Ivy, at five, “tutoring” was mostly learning perro and gato and getting piggyback rides around the grounds. In the afternoons, we went on school-sponsored excursions to see artisans and living conditions in the surrounding area. (The school either shared my vision for how rich tourists should experience Nicaragua, or they got a cut of whatever we spent.) After field trips, we swam in the awkward lake, or visited the sprawling mercado in the nearby town of Masaya. I had an uncomfortable moment when I encountered Danilo, my teacher in the morning, selling Chiclets outside the market in the afternoon.

On the first day’s field trip, we watched a twelve-year-old girl make a basket out of dried palm fronds in twenty-two minutes. She sat on a stool in the family’s living room, an area bound by corrugated roofing lashed between trees to form walls. I hated to think how long it had taken to gather the fronds—the surrounding area was largely denuded, most trees having been sacrificed to cooking fires. I watched Hannah watching; our eldest was exactly this girl’s age. If the girl noticed Hannah at all, I couldn’t see it. She finished her basket, set it aside, and picked up more fronds. Her brother was toddler sized, but he didn’t toddle; he sat quietly at her feet, scratching in the dirt with his hand. A fellow student snapped his picture. The boy seemed used to it. Ivy, who never met a small child she didn’t want to play with and generally treat like a doll, moved behind me.

That afternoon in the mercado, we saw we could buy a palm-frond basket for less than a dollar.

In the evening, an almost-cool came on the breeze, and for half an hour we were almost-comfortable. We lay in hammocks and marveled at the bats, swooping black shadows against the darkening sky. We cheered them for eating the mosquitoes.

But then the breeze was done. At bedtime, the five of us tossed and turned stickily in our sweltering bedroom. We stayed on top of the sheets. We tried to think about popsicles, and the chill of Lake Washington, even in August—and not about the spiders and geckos that would, if we snapped it on, scurry out of our flashlight’s beam.

Ivy whimpered all night, her eczema inflamed by the heat. Anyone thinking about what we’d seen that day didn’t want to discuss it, although Hannah alluded to it, once.

“At least this will end,” she spoke in the crawly darkness. “For us.”

In the morning, Ivy told me she’d dreamt about feeding people.


After the week of intensive language training, educational field trips, and the awareness of sweat pooling in our bodily creases twenty-three and a half hours a day, we taxied to Masaya and caught a bus to Nicaragua’s tourist gem, the colonial town of Granada. Not to be confused with Grenada, the tiny island off the coast of Venezuela that the U.S. “conquered” in the eighties, this Granada is the oldest European settlement in Nicaragua, established in 1524; it seems to have been conquered about twice a week during the Somoza/Sandinista troubles of the 1970s and ’80s. It is, even after those years of war, a beautiful town. The face Granada shows tourists is so darling you almost forget how hot you are. Granada is famous for meticulously restored Baroque and Renaissance buildings. Narrow, pre-automobile streets meander toward a central plaza filled with fountains and flowers.

As we got off the bus, Hannah said, “It’s like the rest of Nicaragua, but not.”

By the time we got there, the kids were so overheated, so exhausted, and their minds were so blown, we couldn’t bring ourselves to keep exploring. So instead of hauling them—or ourselves—through the Sandinistas’ network of underground tunnels, or learning about Francisco Cordoba, the Spanish conqueror who founded Granada and then later got his name on the currency, Anthony and I surrendered.

We gave up on history and architecture. We led no thoughtful, age-appropriate discussions about privilege and power and how we could justify our lives in the face of all we’d seen. Instead, we hung out at our hostel, a converted Colonial beauty with fountains and courtyards and air conditioning, and played in the pool. The kids shrieked and splashed. We dripped our merry way across the charming courtyard to the blissful cool of our two (!)  rooms and watched (missing one quotation here) “La Vida de Jerry Seinfeld,” a weekend-long marathon hosted by the Nicaraguan equivalent of Nick at Nite.

It wasn’t bad parenting, though. For every episode they watched, Harry and Hannah had to write down three Spanish phrases they learned from the episode. (Estos bocadillos me hacen sed! = “These pretzels are making me thirsty!”)

There were bats in Granada, too, and as they began their mosquito-eating swoops, the only movement on our walls were the flickering shadows of Jerry and Elaine, George and Kramer. We lay between cool, smooth sheets. It was bliss, yes; but we were no longer ignorant.


Wherever we went that year, people were forever asking me about our motivations for moving to Central America. When you get the same question over and over, you tend to develop talking points. One of my favorite talking points was that I wanted to eliminate some of the lectures. Lectures are the absolute worst part of parenting. But if you don’t find ways to get the important messages across, you’re sunk and your children become awful.

Hang up your backpack. Manners matter. Here’s why we share.

My parental lecture series had many installments. In moving to Central America, I hoped to dodge a few, living them out instead of yammering on. First up: You guys have no idea how lucky we are.

Nicaragua did the trick.

Nicaragua was an onslaught. The troubling images and the huge questions were so numerous and so upsetting that my weak, defensive brain ended up blending them into a single desperate muddle. So much so that the only question I could muster was How was it that everyone we met there was so clean?

I never did figure this out. By no means did we get a complete view of the country, but the parts we did see were a living, groaning, sweating, Alan Alda­-narrated PBS special on poverty. No running water, unless you count the rivulets through the living rooms when the rains came hard. Kitchens were outside firepits or cookstoves, and everything we saw seemed to be coated in children, chickens, dogs, garbage, and flies. Yet our teachers sparkled when they arrived at school each morning, their jeans dark blue and pressed (never shorts, no matter how thick, how hot, the air), hair still a little damp, shoes perfect and dust-free.

Back home in Seattle, our family was armed with two showers, a washer/dryer, and unlimited hot water. Our paved streets and sidewalks meant most of our dirt lived in the garden, parks, and the occasional sports uniform/detergent commercial. Nonetheless, at least one of our Seattle clan was as likely as not to start the day with a crunchy spot on some bit of hair or clothing.

But when we were taken to peer into classrooms at the elementary school near La Laguna, not a single white shirt had a smudge, although their owners had as likely as not walked a kilometer or two on unpaved roads to get here.

In English I have a decent variety of words at my disposal, but I still couldn’t form any of them into a tactful execution of my terrible question: How do you manage stay so clean when your country is so hot and so dirty, your house has no floor, and there are dogs everywhere?

In Spanish, I mostly smiled, nodded, and tried to tip very, very well. But by the end of the week, my tutor Danilo and I had covered enough topics in the course of our sessions that I thought I could broach the subject.

As I asked him about it, I shook my head and gave a slight laugh at how trashy many of the tourists, including my family, looked. I wanted Danilo to know that I had the sense to be embarrassed.

He spoke slowly, as always, so I could pick up the Spanish.

“When being clean is the way you can show your dignity … when being clean is how you show that you are worth something,” Danilo told me, “you pay attention to be clean.”

That made sense to me. I and mine, we had a lot of ways. My children never questioned their innate worth, and nor did anybody else—we didn’t need to worry about crunchy spots.

The desperate muddle of Nicaragua reminded me of what I already knew, what we all know: As a country, and even in recession, America is ridiculously wealthy. And Northwesterners are, by and large, ridiculously wealthy even for Americans. And while Seattle does know poverty, my family did not. If Harry needed new cleats, we bought them. We lived less than a mile from a library, but I’d buy books for Ivy four at a time for the convenience of not tracking due dates.

But our incredible wealth rarely resonated down to my bones. Lord, pretty much everyone we knew had a nicer house than ours. Friends went to Italy and the Galapagos and on safaris for their vacations; our family went mostly to the Oregon coast. Our lack of an island retreat or a yurt in the Methow valley set us apart among our closest friends.

Seattle, of course, had been packed with the so-legendary-they’ve-become-tiresome-even-though-many-of-them-are-lovely-people-high-tech jillionaires. Our family lived, quite literally, in their shadow—on the bottom slope of the hill that many of them live atop. We schooled, soccered, played, and worked with perfectly normal people who had amazing resources. If you hang in our circles in Seattle, having a very reasonable amount of money can feel downright poor.

The unreality of our situation had been driven home to me a few years back. Through the tireless work of many parents (many of them the at-home wives who spent Microsoft millions), the sweet little public school in our neighborhood had recently become attractive to the many high-high-high-end families in the area.

One spring day, Hannah was invited to play with a new classmate. In our ancient but entirely serviceable Toyota Previa, I drove her up one of the curvy, leafy streets whose homes overlook Lake Washington. Stunning Colonials and Victorians mixed with glassy ultramoderns, but even the diverse architecture came in just one size: Efuckingnormous. Azaleas and rhododendrons bloomed among Japanese maples in the artfully artless front gardens. Hundred-year-old oaks presided in the expansive parking strips. It was the kind of neighborhood you want to drive to just to take a walk. Birds chirped. Joggers were toned and tanned, and they wore fabrics that wick moisture.

Hannah had reached the age when I could drop her off rather than doing the whole mom-chat inside. I double-checked the address and drove into the circular driveway.

I leaned over and kissed Hannah on the head. Such a big girl, all of a sudden. “Have a great time, sweetie. I’ll pick you up at six. Be sure to help pick up.” I ducked down to see out the passenger window so I could wave a quick hi/thanks at whomever answered the door.

Hannah didn’t move. “Okay, but which one?”


“Which one do they live in?”

“Honey, it’s right in front of you. You’re sitting ten feet from the front door.”

Hannah’s voice took on the edge that meant she was being very, very patient with me. “Yes, but which apartment do they live in? I need to know the number, to push the buzzer!”

Oh, right.

I explained that just Maddie’s family lived in this house. Hannah looked up and down the street.

“In all of these? No apartments? Every single house on this street has just one family?”

It’s one thing when your kids are surprised by that kind of wealth. More insidious, for me, was when mine started taking it in stride. Hannah was embarrassed by her mistake that day and would never make it again.

When your children think they come from a needy family because two of them have to share a bedroom, it makes you think a minute. At least, it did me. I’d been proud of the way we’d been able to live; still, in our neighborhood we mostly wore cotton T-shirts to go jogging.

I might feel middle class in the States, and even in our new home in Monteverde, where our growing community of friends included many who lived beautifully but hadn’t worked for years—expats one and all. But I could not avoid the truth in Nicaragua. Nicaragua launched a full-on truth assault until I couldn’t take it anymore. I hid away with my kids, from the flies and the dogs and the sadness and the air that you have to do the breaststroke through. Eating pretzels and watching Jerry Seinfeld reruns in an air-conditioned room, I hid from the truth of the poverty in which too many people live. And I hid from the truth of my own, unimaginable wealth.


I think that most of us who never go hungry (unless it’s on purpose) do know how fortunate we are. But I forget. Why do I keep having to remember and re-remember this thing I know I know? On the sweaty bus ride back from Nicaragua, I swear to God, I caught myself whining because we wouldn’t be able to afford to get to Ecuador at Christmas.

I’m confused by issues of having and not having and I’m not sure what to do. I know I want to raise conscious kids. Our Seattle was a dream world, where wealth was assumed and want was nonexistent. I would see it as a failure on my part to not expose us all to a bigger reality. But I want my children to be aware of suffering, not inured to it. What a terrible backfire it would be to raise children who have seen so much poverty that they think it’s unavoidable and unaddressable.

I’m pretty sure even Jesus had some class issues. On the one hand, He was clearly very big on feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and so on. On the other, there’s that one disturbing story, when Judas got so snotty about Mary Magdalene—that slut!—anointing Jesus with oil. Judas thought the oil should have been sold, and the money given to the poor. Jesus defended the extravagance, saying “The poor will always be with us.” I’ve always thought that was a fairly dickish statement on His part.

But I understood it better, in Nicaragua. Being anointed in oil was the Jesus version of an air-conditioned hostel.

So I don’t feel bad about letting my kids laugh at the television that whole weekend. They had seen a lot, and they couldn’t fix any of it. They’d lived the lecture.

What we saw in Nicaragua will percolate and distill, and become part of who we are. I want us to have the will and the energy for baby steps, and then bigger steps. Sometimes we’ll give deeply, and sometimes we’ll give ourselves a break. That one weekend, I surrendered my plan to learn and grow and be educated citizens of the planet, every damn minute of the trip. I shut up, and we all ate pretzels.

Author’s Note: Publishing this piece terrifies me. Is it nothing but a big fat rationalization? Sometimes I think the best thing I can do for the world is to grow loving, caring people who will enter and transform it. And sometimes I think anything short of giving all we have is a crock. And sometimes I think—this should come as no surprise—What’s for snack? I settle at last in a place that’s very centrist. Between hedonism and abstention, between fruitless navel-gazing and militant benevolence; that’s where I live, and where I want to raise my kids. With gratitude, humility and things that go crunch. There is nothing more perfect to me than a line in the Wendell Berry poem  “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts. Yes. Exactly. I start there. I move outward.

Brain, Child (Spring 2012)

Margot Page’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain, Child and the Huffington Post. She is the creator of the popular “Dear Drudgery” column on the Brain, Mother blog and writes about Pope Francis, travel, and things that amuse her at . Follow Margot onTwitter, friend her on Facebook, and check out her memoir Paradise Imperfect: An American Family Moves to the Costa Rican Mountains. Margot lives, works and writes in Seattle.

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