Tag Archives: parenting

Finding Empathy

One of the amazing things about watching kids grow up is watching them evolve as aware humans. Little kids are, by their nature, mostly self-centered. They have these moments of deep kindness, but also moments of sheer lack of understanding of others’ emotions or views.

One of the most beautiful things about having adolescents is seeing them fully emerge from that younger, naturally narcissistic viewpoint, to becoming kids who can really appreciate others, and empathize with them.

I feel like with teens, they can be moody, prickly, and self-centered at times. It can be easy to fall into this trap of seeing them as uncaring or unfeeling toward others. But the reality is that they’re not. One reason that young adolescents sometimes seem extra concerned with their image is that they can suddenly see that not everyone sees the world or themselves the way they do.

I think, as a parent, you have to catch them being their best selves. You have to catch them when they’re coming out of their shells to do kind things.

BalletBoy spent all year volunteering at his ballet studio, teaching a class of little kids. He did several volunteer stints at a soup kitchen by his own request. When he passes homeless people on the street, he stops and gives them his own money.

Recently, our lives were upended very briefly when we rushed to be at my grandmother’s side as she lay in hospice, dying. Every time he came into the room, Mushroom went to her side and greeted her. Even after she lost consciousness, he spoke to her and told her he was there and that he loved her. He didn’t shy away from holding her hand or touching her.

You guys, teens are the best. Young kids are special and wonderful too, but teens have so much more understanding and nuance. We’re really just at the start of the teenage journey, and I like to gripe about it sometimes. They are moody and sarcastic and all the things teenagers are. They ignore me and roll their eyes too. But they also have these moments of empathy and caring that go beyond the gestures I saw from them when they were little. It’s so beautiful and I can’t wait to see how they continue to grow.

The boys hugging their great-grandmother last fall.

Raising Kids Who Will Do Better


We live in a racist, sexist, classist, generally prejudiced world.

I grew up in that world, like we all do, in the south specifically. And while I was taught to value equality by my mother and by many teachers, I was also taught to see people of color as “other” or less in a million little ways and men as the ones in charge, by family members and by the culture around me. As I grew up, I tried to fight against those cultural lessons and for understanding racism, sexism, and intolerance. And I was lucky enough to have experiences attending diverse schools and traveling that helped me better understand other perspectives than my own. And as better language about privilege and implicit bias and consent has come into being, I’ve adopted it the best I can and tried to apply it to my little corner of the world.

But I’m not a native speaker of that language. And I never will be.

Here is a funny thing I’ve come to realize in the last year or so. My kids have internalized critiques of sexism and racism much more clearly than I can ever hope to. They are native speakers of the language that has evolved to talk about bias and oppression.

Let’s be clear. I have two privileged, middle class, white boys. And none of us are perfect by any stretch of the imagination. While I’m about to sing my kids’ praises here, I’ve also seen them slip up and say ignorant things about other people. All of us are works in progress. All of us are beneficiaries of a system that favors us. And while I would love it if our homeschooling circles were more diverse, they’re not, so that’s something we deal with.

But in the last few months, I’ve been seeing how Mushroom and BalletBoy call out incidents of sexism and racism and bias like it’s something they can’t not see. And they do it in a way that comes incredibly naturally to them. When we read aloud an older book where a boy plants an unwanted kiss on a girl’s cheek, BalletBoy stopped me practically mid-sentence and wanted to know, “Haven’t these people ever heard of consent?” When talking about “Sleeping Beauty” with the Husband, Mushroom observed, “The Prince basically assaults her in her sleep. Why is that supposed to be romantic?” When seeing a smiling slave in a picture book, Mushroom observed, “That’s not right. Would they really be smiling?” When told it would be okay if he was friends with someone who hated Muslims, BalletBoy fought back by being appalled at that notion. “No it wouldn’t! That person would be racist.”

When the boys were little, I really tried to take to heart the idea that the research says we have to be explicit with kids about race and that holding up colorblindness to kids as a value simply isn’t useful in combating racism. I’ve tried to keep the conversation about sexism in similarly clear terms, bringing up basic ideas about consent when they were very young with the idea that if it’s done naturally then that’s the best thing for raising kids.

And we’ve tried to read books and consume media that is diverse in many ways, with protagonists of different genders, races, and cultures. That has meant reading books like One Crazy Summer, that tackle racism head on in a very modern way (even if it’s a work of historical fiction) but also being willing to read quality older books and notice when race or gender isn’t dealt with well. One of the boys’ all time favorite series is The Great Brain, and it’s hardly a hateful series, but in books like that with older attitudes toward immigrants or First Nations peoples, we have tried to talk about how times have changed. And we’ve tried to read books and be willing to, in a kid appropriate way, study topics like the Civil Rights Movement or the Suffrage Movement or even tougher topics like the Holocaust or the legacy of Colonialism.

We haven’t had a unified curriculum or anything like that. And none of this has felt like a burden to me. Sometimes, I try to think, oh, have we been reading all male authors for awhile, maybe we should change things up, or vice versa, trying to loosely make sure we’re keeping a diversity of perspectives in our reading and media viewing. But mostly it’s been teachable moments, something that I think comes naturally to most homeschool families, and really to most thoughtful, engaged parents. However, part of doing this has meant being willing to have awkward conversations about race and gender even with young kids. The teachable moments are only obvious when you’re willing to have an uncomfortable conversation that acknowledges that things aren’t perfect or that racism isn’t over or that not everyone recognizes consent.

But the payoff is big. The payoff is kids who are native speakers of a new language. And for my kids, white males, it means they see privilege with acknowledgement and awareness but not resentment of the need to do that. They aren’t attached to some conception of masculinity that requires that they not express emotion. They don’t assume that a story about a Black girl or a Muslim boy or an Asian family isn’t for them so they’re open to listening.

Right now, my hope is that kids who were raised this way are our future.


Homeschooling and Anxiety

hugging kids

Since I got several questions about Mushroom’s “positive thought cards” that I mentioned in our day in the life post, I thought I’d post a little about those cards, some other things we’ve done for anxiety that has worked, and generally how things are going with a kid who has some anxiety issues.

Before I get any further, I feel like I have to say this. There are a lot of good books, good blog posts, and good tips out there for helping kids deal with anxiety. If you have a child who suffers from anxiety, it’s good to try those things, but if they’re not working, please, please seek professional help. There’s no substitute for a good therapist. Anxiety can really hold kids back and the sooner you resolve those issues, the better.

Okay, with that out of the way… I’ve posted before about how Mushroom suffers from some anxiety issues. They have really waxed and waned throughout his life. The peak was really more than a year ago when he was experiencing anxiety about a huge range of things, including dogs, going outdoors, public bathrooms, and schoolwork. After working through an anxiety workbook and trying several things, we decided it was time to see a therapist, which we did off and on for several months. That helped solidify the strategies we were using and gave us some new ones as well. I think we were mostly on the right path with him, but without the outside voice saying to us all, keep it up, you’re doing it right, it’s easy to question your strategies and jump around more. Mushroom worked through the worst of his fears and things have been mostly pretty calm.

Here are the things that are the go to tools in our box for helping him stay on the calm and capable path:

Positive Thought Cards
This suggestion came from the therapist. These are homemade index cards with specific thoughts to counterbalance Mushroom’s negative “bad brain” thoughts. He has written some and I’ve written others. They’ve changed over time as some fears have almost completely faded and others have arisen. When he first started them, he had to read them all several times every day to memorize them. Now, I pull them out when he’s feeling generally anxious. Part of the goal is for him to be able to pull those thoughts up himself when he is anxious. However, the concrete cards are so useful. When I hear him saying something negative, such as, “I can’t do this,” or, “I don’t have enough time!” then I have him go find a card that will speak to that fear from the pile, such as, “Farrar makes sure I have plenty of time to do my work.” or, “Nothing bad will happen if I don’t finish my school work.” There are a lot of general positive thoughts in there like, “Most people are good,” as well as specific things for him. This has been one of the most enduring things we have used from therapy.

Deep Breaths
This one is a no brainer. Taking deep breaths helps when you’re getting anxious. I began teaching both the boys this when they were pretty little. We’re not masters of this technique by any stretch. But it does work to head off budding anxiety sometimes. More importantly, when he gets really upset, it helps him calm down. It’s important to practice taking a deep breath when everyone is calm. We try to do this before bed most nights, just doing a few deep breaths before tucking in.

Worry Time
This suggestion came from the book What to Do When You Worry Too Much, which is a book with exercises written to the child. It’s a good first stop if you have an anxious kid. The text is simple but doesn’t talk down to the child at all. I highly recommend it. The idea behind worry time is that some kids want to discuss their worries endlessly. Instead, they get one short worry time every day in which to really let out every negative thought. But at all other times, parents have to refuse to engage with them or let them talk about the worries. This was a tough thing to implement with Mushroom at the start of trying to help him with his anxiety. However, once he had other strategies in place, it became a good routine. He rarely has as much need to talk through the worries, but when he does, he knows that he can. This is another thing we have pegged to bedtime and tuck in. When he needs to, he’ll simply say, “I sort of have a worry thing…” and we open up worry time again.

Name It
This was a trick that came out of therapy for us and while it initially seemed a little cheesy to me, it has been one of the things that has helped most. Mushroom named his anxiety “the bad brain” and we talk about it in those terms, as an almost separate thing from him. When he’s struggling with a negative thought, I’ll call him on it by saying, “That’s a bad brain thought. That’s not what you think.” When he makes a poor decision based on anxiety, we’ll talk about how he’s letting bad brain control him. Externalizing it has helped him a lot.

Not Shying Away from the Worries
One of the nice things about homeschooling a kid with anxiety is that you can take time to do things at their pace and be by their side supporting them at every step. I think most of us would agree that especially in the early grades, the focus on testing and academics is one of the things that’s leading to a whole generation of anxious kids. We can back off when things are tough and give kids time to grow and mature so they can be ready to tackle difficult things, be they academic, social, or otherwise. On the other hand, homeschooling also makes it perhaps too easy to let kids avoid their worries every single time. We’re always there with them. We know how they feel. It’s easy to let them get out of having to really face up to the worries and that doesn’t do them any favors in the long run. The way to overcome a fear is not to avoid it, it’s slow and consistent exposure with plenty of positive support. It’s a tricky balance sometimes. Sometimes it’s good to give kids a break and regroup or tackle something in a new way, especially with scaled down expectations. But overall, I’ve learned that it’s important to not shelter kids from their worries. I know that with Mushroom, he has mostly conquered his fear of dogs. However, if he somehow goes several weeks without seeing a dog, the fear starts to build up again. We have to be sure to stop and say hello to a dog routinely to make sure that the worry doesn’t begin to build again.

Three Good Things and a Joke
This is the strategy that I use most often with BalletBoy when he’s stuck in a sad or anxious day, though I use it with Mushroom as well sometimes. He doesn’t have anxiety like his brother, but every kid can have a bad day and need a little help. The jist of this is just that we name three good things from the day (or maybe the week, or three things he’s looking forward to, or three things he’s proud of recently – it can be anything along those lines). Then I tell a joke or show him a silly video on my phone. When someone is feeling anxious or upset, the tendency is to want to talk about the anxieties. However, talking about the worries isn’t really good for moving on from the worries. This is really about changing the focus to something positive instead and then distracting the kid with something else to think about other than themselves. And after telling a few jokes and laughing, you can shift the conversation or the activity to something else.

Keeping at It
The final and maybe the most important thing is keeping up the strategies. At least for Mushroom, anxiety is cyclical. It comes and goes with high and low points. If we don’t keep some level of practice with the positive thought cards, the deep breathing, the relaxation exercises, and so forth, then it’s much harder when the anxiety inevitably comes back. It’s hard when a kid is having a great day to say, okay, and now before bed let’s check in about worries. It feels unnecessary and I know I have a tendency to want to drop all of the things we usually do when times are good. However, having it as a consistent practice is important.

Overall, I have to say, Mushroom is doing really well with his anxiety issues. However, as we head into a notoriously difficult age, I know that there will be a lot of new challenges. Hopefully we’ve laid enough groundwork to meet them.

Focus, Farrar

I was having a conversation the other day about how hard it is lately for me to focus.  It’s like my brain is pulled in a million directions at once.  Sometimes I think doing anything for more than fifteen minutes is a chore.

Part of it, inevitably, is the shallows of the internets.  I’ve been cutting back for Lent and thinking of detethering myself from parts of it.  But it’s still a great tool.  And a source of happiness and enjoyment much of the time.  Like everyone else, I know I’m looking for the right balance.

But another part of it is the nature of this stage of homeschooling, at least the way we’re doing it here.  I spend a huge chunk of my day sitting at a table with my kids running around doing, doing, doing.  I have to be there.  If I’m not there, a huge amount of the school work that needs to be done can’t be done.  While the boys have slowly gotten more independent with much of their work, we still read aloud, watch videos and discuss them together, do poetry teas, and have me doing direct instruction for spelling.  I still sit next to them to help walk them through math lessons and check their work as they go.  And even though they’re often doing things like piano practice and math drills on their own, I’m always working with one kid.

I don’t regret that a bit.  I think really being with the kids, one on one, is one of the benefits of homeschooling.  I don’t think workbooks and fill in the blanks are the best way to learn.  I think interaction is key for most kids.  That’s a huge part of why we do what we do.  Especially for things like writing and math, I think you get out of it what you put into it.

The thing is, the vast majority of the time, I don’t need to put my complete focus on the kids.  If I try to read a book or even a long, involved article, there’s no way I’ll get very far without my concentration being broken.  I can’t organize things or write more than a few sentences.  I can’t get up and sweep the floor or do the dishes.  I can’t start sewing or painting something.  I suppose if I knew how to knit, that might be useful.  Mostly, I can browse social media, play 2048, do sudoku or crossword puzzles, and just…  wait.  I wait to be needed, wait to be asked a question, wait for my moment to walk someone through a tricky math problem or work on revising a piece of writing.  And huge swaths of my time are spent this way.  I don’t wait long, but it adds up.

It’s not just in schooling either.  I wait at soccer and ballet because it’s not long enough to go anywhere.  I wait at art class.  I wait at the park while they play in the creek in the middle of a nature walk.

When we’re home, not doing school, the kids are pretty much self-sufficient.  But they still come interrupt me.  It’s still hard to know that I’ll have that whole hour without someone coming to ask for something.

Part of it is just the stage, but I’m finding it frustrating.  I’ve always been a person who needs to waste time in order to give my brain room to be creative or focused.  I’ve always been someone who needed to veg with TV or play Tetris on Gameboy before diving in to write that paper or finish that thesis or prepare all my lessons.  But this feels different.  I’m out of practice with determination and focus.  I don’t have a job to go off to or a project that has to be done by a certain time.

Having plenty of time that is all in tiny little chunks isn’t really helping me value when I have longer chunks.  It’s killing my focus.

I’m not sure what the conclusion of this rambling post is.  Mostly I suppose, just a recognition of how oddly difficult and disjointing my life is at this moment, even though I don’t have the excuse of a baby or a crisis or being overly “busy” that having kids, even big kids, still takes a lot out of us and I need to learn to shut the door to them more, and fight to find the space I need.  And the focus!

“If you would shut your door against the children for an hour a day and say; ‘Mother is working on her five-act tragedy in blank verse!’ you would be surprised how they would respect you. They would probably all become playwrights.” – Brenda Ueland

Just reminding myself with one of my favorite quotes.

Life Interferes

Out for breakfast with the grandparents.

What is it about spring that makes it so hard for us to get on track? Lately, we have just been stuck for getting our basic stuff accomplished. We’re doing okay on things, but I wish we were doing more. We have just stalled out.

And it’s not just the pollen or the warmth in the air calling us back outside. It’s just been life.

We have been seeing the husband act, enjoying a visit from some grandparents, and taking advantage of the return of baseball.

We have been finishing essays for the contest for the friends of the library, preparing presentations for co-op, finishing out our Destination Imagination season, and making those literary Peep dioramas for Easter.

We’ve been diving into the Mindstorms set the kids saved up for, trying to keep the biology experiments from expanding beyond the dining room mantle, and playing around more with Scratch programming.

We’ve been distracted by the board game Dix-It that we bought at a co-op outing to the games store, the art book The Great Art Scandal which we spent two days solving during school time, and Shakespeare prop and costume makings.

Honestly, with all that going on, who has time for schoolwork? On the other hand, at least we’ve got a rich and full life.

Happy Peepster

After some interesting discussion, the awesome folks over at Secular Home School decided we should have a Peeps diorama show off with a book theme.  We just had to participate.

Mushroom made Harry Peeper and the Quidditch Match.

photo (97)

BalletBoy made Mrs. Peeple-Weeple’s Farm.

photo (94)

This was so, so fun.  I’m very glad we did it and very pleased with the results.

Happy Easter if you celebrate!  May your Peeps be mushy or stale depending on your preference.


photo (93)

I feel like I’m in a constant state of recalibrations as a parent.  The house and the homeschool are this incredibly complex, busy, multifaceted machine and it’s my job to constantly oil it, take readings, and generally do whatever tinkering engineers do on fancy machines.

Take our schedule and routine.  We started the year with little whiteboards for each boy that had a list of all the things we might do in a week, from copywork to a page in a workbook to watch a documentary.  At the start of the week, I would put little boxes next to all the tasks and we would slowly check everything off.  Worked great for a couple of months.  Then it was time for a recalibration.  I relabeled things on the little boards and would start the day by putting the boxes to check off.  Much more manageable.  Worked great.  And then…  it fell by the wayside because it was less great.  The other day, I peeled off the task labels so I could use the boards.  Time to recalibrate.  Lately, if we’re having a really full school day I list much more specific tasks on the easel board.  We need the checklists a little less in part because starting the day with our morning work routine gets us going.

Right now, I am loving the morning work.  I leave out simple things like math drills and grammar practice sheets.  I leave out more complex things like Wakeruppers pages and math puzzles.  I also leave out creative assignments like art challenges.  Will we still be doing morning work in a year?  Honestly, who knows.  It might have to be recalibrated.

The latest recalibration was that I realized we had drifted away from doing enough for language arts and writing.  We have still been at the poetry teas and have been plugging away at dictations, but we haven’t been as consistent with anything as I would like.  This is in part because we were playing with introducing All About Spelling to our routine and letting spelling be a big focus for Mushroom for the last couple of months.  Not a big deal.  We were like an old clock losing time.  I just needed to recalibrate.

One thing I’ve been trying to get back to especially is doing more narrations.  Mushroom wrote this one about butterflies and I think it’s his best writing for a narration yet (spelling and capitalization corrected, but nothing else changed):

First, the mother butterfly flies across the sky.  Eight hundred eggs come out of her or more.  All the eggs fall on different leaves.  As the eggs grow up they shed their skin.  They turn very colorful with yellow and black stripes.  The larva can only eat milkweed at this stage. Milkweed has poison in it that they can eat.  When they eat a lot of it other creatures that eat them get poisoned.

The time has come to make the chrysalis.  The butterfly makes a chrysalis.  At the top, there’s a silkmat.  Below the top there is a cremaster that sticks the chrysalis on to the tree.  The caterpillar changes into a butterfly.

I am always glad to recalibrate.  I feel like we’re always in search of that right balance with enough rigor, enough free time, enough fun projects, enough boring math practice, enough field trips, and so on and so forth.  It will, of course, never be perfect, but that’s okay.  As long as we keep tinkering and recalibrating instead of stagnating, then I assume the machine will just on humming along.

Feelings Pictures

Mushroom feels everything he feels so much.  I think his head must be a really intense place sometimes.  When he’s happy, he’s joyous and when he’s sad he’s so tearful.  I don’t think it’s anything out of the range of normal or anything – it’s not often crippling for him in everyday life or anything like that, but I’ve been trying to help him with expressing things.  He’s actually pretty good at putting his feelings into words, and I’m trying to help him learn to do that when he’s sad, so he can cry, express himself and then move on.  Sometimes it really works, sometimes not so much, but when it works, I feel like it’s a skill that some adults have never learned and if he can carry it with him, then he’ll have a real strength in life.

When he’s really sad or angry, he often, in that way that little kids express, seems to think he’ll be in that place forever.  The world can never be right again.  I’ve recently been trying to get him to pause and take a mental picture of his feelings when he’s happy, because when he’s proud or content or having a good time, it’s wonderful.  When I tell him to do it, completely of his own accord, he closes his eyes, grins really big and says, “Click!”


He’s not actually doing that in this picture.  He’s just being happy.  But it captured his real joyful side.

Between Nurture and No-Nonsense

I’ve written here several times about how I feel like finding balance is one of the keys for parenting and homeschooling for me.  I often feel like I’m trying to walk a tightrope line between structure and freedom, indulgence and strictness, and pushing and patience.  The place between these extremes is where I feel like great parenting and healthy kids comes from, even if I don’t always feel like my personal balance is just right.

Lately, I have felt a huge tug between being that nurturing, loving, understanding, cuddle up in my lap mother and being that “shut up and get over yourself” mother.  Both BalletBoy and Mushroom in the last few weeks have pushed me on this in various ways.

With BalletBoy, he has several times gotten himself high up without a clear way down and wanted me to do it for him (an impossible task when he’s over my head).  With Mushroom, as always, it’s schoolwork where he finds himself overwhelmed and on the ledge.

On the one hand, I want to be the patient, loving mother.  I want to be all attachment parenting, no judgments mama.  But sometimes, the more I give, the more they take and the less they actually get any better or make any progress.  It’s as if my helping them down, letting them out of it, easing off the pressure, actually makes them less secure and more upset.  Instead of feeding their confidence, every hug and patient word feeds their fears and anxieties.

So I find myself going the other direction.  I state calmly my support and then…  I ignore.  Or, sometimes, I give some harsh words.  Get yourself down.  Take a deep breath and get over it.  I’ll help you when you stop panicking and let me help.  Until then, I can’t even hear you!

Sometimes it works right away and that’s so validating.  Sometimes, it takes forever.  Eons of my nasty ignoring for a child to calm down and come around.  And then I really wonder if the balance is off.  Where’s that sweet spot between nurture and no-nonsense where a child is both secure and independent and knows how loved he is?