Tag Archives: reading

Confessions of a Failed Geek: My Kids Don’t Like Fantasy

IMG_0581
Imagining… but maybe not swords and dragons.

In the last few months, a horrible truth has come down in our home. While the kids enjoy a little Harry Potter, like playing Dungeons and Dragons, and looked forward to seeing the new Star Wars, they just don’t care for fantasy.

I have been trying to deny this for years. I’ve been pushing the Diana Wynne Jones, the Lloyd Alexander, the Gregor the Overlander books on them. They often tolerate it. Sometimes they find it enjoyable. But the truth has been written on the wall for a long time. The fantasy books get an, “okay,” but they would much rather hear The Saturdays, The Great Brain, a pile of historical fiction, a mystery novel.

I was a fantasy fanatic as a kid. I read nearly everything that was labeled fantasy on the children’s shelves – Narnia, Edward Eager, Robin McKinley, and so forth. Then I moved into the adult section and tried out books like the Dragonriders of Pern and The Belgariad.

The idea that fantasy is “just escapism” has been pretty well refuted in the last few decades as children’s and now young adult literature has become more saturated with it and even adult literature has leaned more and more speculative with writers like Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin as some of the most blockbuster bestsellers out there.

Fantasy was so influential in forming the way I looked at the world. Fantasy is big battles between good and evil. It’s big questions about right and wrong. It’s about power and responsibility. And it lays it all out in a way that’s more epic and more philosophically bare than most realistic fiction for kids. It’s not an escape from reality, it’s reality heightened for young readers, where you can really think about what you believe and challenge your imagination.

I can remember flying through and then rereading fantasy novels, especially in middle school. Obsessing over the details, copying the maps of imaginary places, and then dreaming up my own imaginary places. I can remember imagining, all Mary Sue style, what it would be like to be in these fantasy places, visiting Narnia, tempted by the Dark Side, tromping into Mordor, fighting the power of IT, training to battle dragons.

And now, I realized, my kids just won’t have those moments or anything like them. It made me want to cry.

But, gathering myself together. It’s okay. I would have groaned at some of the long classics and historical fiction that they actually adore. They adored The Secret Garden when they were little. They actually really enjoy classics that other kids often find sort of dull, like when we read Island of the Blue Dolphins. And far from shying away from tough topics, Mushroom’s favorite books are critically acclaimed books about tough topics like Mockingbird and Counting By 7’s. Those aren’t the sort of books I would have read at that age at all, but they’re undoubtedly giving him different perspectives on the world. They get excited about a new Penderwicks book and reveled having a new Calpurnia Tate book to listen to.

And while they may not be fantasy nuts, they don’t lack for imagination, playing out long soap operas of intrigue and love between their toys and coming up with elaborate spy, ninja, and mythology inspired games with their friends. For them, art, history, and politics can be just as much fodder for the imagination as Narnia or Middle Earth.

Reading Short Stories

We changed up how we do reading at the rowhouse a little more than a year ago. We used to do “required reading” from a list of books. The kids had to choose one book per month. I think that was an okay system, but we began to find it difficult to keep up. If my kids were voracious readers, it might have been perfect. However, as it is, they’re just not. They enjoy reading, but they’re not stay up all night readers. And while I had chosen good books at their level, I found that my central goal of wanting them to just read more wasn’t being met by pushing them to read specific books.

So we dropped that. Now, instead, we do an hour of required reading before bed nearly every night. The only requirement is that they read something new to them for at least half of the reading time. In other words, a new book for at least half an hour and then rereading a graphic novel is okay if it’s what they want, which it is sometimes. This has filled that goal a lot better. They read a lot of what I would consider “junky” books, but they also routinely choose interesting books by good authors. Most importantly, their fluency and reading enjoyment has improved, so that goal is met. They read more books than they used to, which is great.

However, I found that as they got older I had another goal. I wanted to push them to read more difficult writing and practice closer reading, such as marking up a text, pulling out quotes, discussing and supporting your opinion, as well as beginning to look at literary elements. Reading one novel a month hadn’t met that goal because everyone was reading something different. We can do a little of that with poetry at poetry teas and also with read aloud novels, but I wanted to add another component, which is why I turned to short stories.

Short stories are perfect for close reading. You can introduce kids to classic authors and stories in a much less intimidating way. You can really pick apart a story from start to finish and feel like you had a meaty discussion. Everything in a short story is condensed so that things like the plot arc become clearer and things like character development and message have to be done with the bare minimum.

To keep it simple, I decided to make it one short story a month. I printed a bunch and put them together. We have mostly stuck with it and I feel it has worked really well. When I initially introduced this and asked the kids to underline and mark things in their copies, they weren’t at all sure what to do. But as we have practiced, I’ve seen them get more adept at finding the things I ask for, such as examples of metaphors, places where you can see a character’s motivation, descriptive writing, examples of irony, or other things. They’ve also gotten more eager to sit and discuss the story, which we do at a special poetry tea time, of course.

I chose stories by looking at lists and short story collections. A few of these we haven’t gotten to yet because we’re not finished with the year, but I thought I’d put our list here. Lists of middle school short stories was a good starting point, but many of the classic stories, such as “To Build a Fire” and “A Sound of Thunder” are ones I wanted to save for various reasons.

Good places to find short stories:

  • Best Shorts edited by Avi is a great collection with stories just right for this age.
  • Shelf Life edited by Gary Paulsen is a good collection with a more contemporary feel.
  • Guys Read series edited by Jon Scieszka has several volumes with different themes and is continuing to add more. The stories are chosen with boys in mind, but they’re really just great stories by a variety of authors and the “boy” angle can really be ignored. Many of the stories are by popular contemporary authors. For example, the fantasy collection has a Percy Jackson story. However, they also include some older and classic authors.
  • This list is an excellent list for middle schoolers, compiled by polling teachers on a popular education site.

The Stories I Chose for Fifth Grade

“The Fun They Had” by Isaac Asimov
A great one for homeschoolers because it imagines a very dull sort of future homeschooling. And a good one for talking about the ways that we perceive the future and what’s important for learning and childhood. An easy and quick one to read.

“Zlateh the Goat” by Isaac Bashevis Singer
A parable style story about a boy and the goat he can’t bring himself to take to be butchered.

“Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes
This was one of our best hits, which inspired a great conversation about human nature and laws. A classic short story about a woman who catches a thief and instead of calling the authorities, takes him home for supper.

“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
A perfect Christmas season read. The classic story of literary irony. This one was a great hit.

“Scout’s Honor” by Avi
A great funny kid story from author Avi’s childhood. He and his city friends try camping without really knowing what they’re doing.

“The Grown Up” by Ian McEwan
This is from McEwan’s collection of short stories about one boy called The Daydreamer. This one is essentially like the movie Big in short story form.

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calabaras County” by Mark Twain
The language in this story is a slight stretch for some kids, but the story is great for thinking about dialect and untrustworthy narrators. Plus, it’s funny.

“Nuts” by Natalie Babbitt
A funny take on the devil as a trickster. This is from Babbitt’s collection of stories about the devil.

“Miss Awful” by Arthur Cavanaugh
A story about a nice teacher and a mean one. A good one to talk about authority figures.

“The Third Wish” by Joan Aiken
A modern feeling fairy tale. A nice one to potentially read with other stories about wishes, such as “Wishes” by Natalie Babbitt and “The Stone” by Lloyd Alexander.

“All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury
The classic anti-bullying story. Just an amazing short tale. We actually read this with our co-op, but I had to include it on this list because it’s my favorite of all time. Bradbury has many others that are appropriate for middle school, but this one is perfect for upper elementary too. Note that there’s also an excellent short movie of the story, which can be easily found online.

 

The Real Reason We Miss Reading Rainbow

reading

There was a small, exciting moment yesterday when I thought I had read that the classic show Reading Rainbow was coming back.  Sadly, it’s not.  Instead, host Levar Burton managed to fund a project to expand Reading Rainbow content on different web platforms.  Good for him, I guess, but not the same as a whole new season of such a great show.

For those who don’t know, Reading Rainbow was canceled several years ago when PBS decided to shift their focus in their reading programming entirely to teaching reading mechanics, as well as focusing more on younger viewers.  Thus began the era of shows like Super Why and the new Electric Company reboot, shows that are mostly about rhymes and phonics and sounding out words, shows that are aimed closer to the preschool set than the upper elementary one.

There’s nothing wrong with shows like that (well, I have a totally separate issue with Super Why’s complete dumbing down of fairy tales, but that’s a rant for another post).  In fact, teaching reading mechanics is critically important.  Without phonics, no one can actually, you know, read.

In the last decade or so, the pendulum has swung very firmly from a more whole language approach to reading to a more mechanics based approach with schools moving to put in phonics programs and drill kids on reading mechanics.  Don’t get me wrong, it needed to do so.  Schools had turned whole language into a very simplified drill of sight words which wasn’t really serving most kids in learning to read.  PBS’s programming shift is just part of the trend toward teaching phonics.

However, the reason that everyone loves Reading Rainbow and got so fleetingly excited about it’s potential return and even funded Burton’s Kickstarter so generously is because reading is not phonics.

Reading is stories.  Reading is going to other worlds and traveling in time.  Reading is poetry.  Reading is escape.  Reading is finding yourself in a book.  Reading is learning.  Reading is how the world works and why the sky is blue and how big dinosaurs are.  Reading is inspiration.  Reading is fun.  Reading is meaning.

Phonics, as important as it is, is not meaning.  It’s just mechanics.  It’s the notes, not the song.  Reading Rainbow is so beloved so many years later because it talked about the songs, not the notes, something that it feels like we’ve gotten too far away from in early reading instruction sometimes to me lately.

When children can’t see the point of what they’re learning, then they don’t have the same motivation as when they do.  Supposedly, PBS’s refocusing on phonics was supposed to be especially important for lower income kids who might be most struggling with reading mechanics.  However, the same kids are the ones less likely to see reading modeled in their lives.  In general, learning about the reason why we read, feeling inspired to actually go read a book, not just gain the ability to sound out the words, seems so essentially important.  That’s what Reading Rainbow brought.

So Reading Rainbow may not be coming back, at least not the way many of us might wish, but here’s in praise of reading for meaning, reading for content, reading for fun, and generally loving books and stories and beautiful words.  Here’s to just let me finish the chapter before you turn out the light.  Here’s to why don’t we take a look in a book to find out.  Here’s to toting around your book wherever you go.  Don’t just share the sounds of the letter A, share that love of words and books.

February Books

Well,  I think we can all agree that, as always, the end of the horrible, horrible month of February is a cause for joy.  But we did read some good books.  Our book round up for the month.

The Winged WatchmanRead Aloud
The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum
I picked this as a first fiction read aloud for World War II.  It is about the final days of the war in Holland.  Two brothers, Joris and Dirk Jan, each do their parts to work against the German occupiers.  Gentle Joris is so young he cannot remember a time when war was not a way of life and Dirk Jan is just old enough to yearn for the adventure of working for the underground resistance.  The brothers help their neighbors, help save their dog, hide people from the Nazis, and deliver secret messages.  All around them, Holland is ravaged by the war, but living in a farm community has sheltered the boys from the worst of the starvation that others experienced.  It’s a lesser known book compared to some World War II titles, but we found it to be a nice balance between gentle and true for a period that was full of horrors.  We’ll dive in with some slightly darker fare next.

The Whipping BoyBalletBoy’s Required Reading
The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
BalletBoy felt that last month’s book was on the long side so he scoured the Newbery list for the shortest title and promised to balance it with something longer on the next go around.  It’s a medieval story with a fairy tale feel that contains a good dose of action and adventure as a prince and a lowly born boy end up thrown together.  BalletBoy said the book was, “Okay, I guess.”  I really like it, but not a ringing endorsement.  Oh well.  Last month he was really won over by the required reading book, so I figure you can’t win them all.

"Wonderstruck"  from author/illustrator Brian Selznick highlights themes of loss, grief and reunion. He did in the Caldecott Medal-winning "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." Mushroom’s Required Reading
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznik
This was another specific book request for required reading.  Clearly, as usual, we’ve drifted away from the required reading list.  At this point, I told the kids that any Newbery winner or honor title is fair game.  This book tells two different stories, taking place decades apart, simultaneously.  One is told in words and the other in pictures.  The stories interweave and come together in the end.  Just like in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Selznik uses this unusual form to tell a compelling story.  Mushroom was really happy with the book and while the book’s density has to do with the many pages of illustration and not the high word count, he seemed especially pleased to have read something that was so thick.

The titan's curse.jpgAudiobook
Percy Jackson and the Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan
We’ve done these as audiobooks because the kids weren’t keen to read them on their own, but were keen to hear them.  The narration is good.  It fits the story.  And I’ve been telling myself that they’re nice light fare to vaguely review for the National Mythology Exam, which the boys are both taking this week for the first time.  I really enjoyed this series myself when it first came out.  Since Riordan’s various other series have shown him, in my opinion, to be a bit of a one note writer, my love for the books has diminished, but I have been reminded what made them popular in the first place, namely that they’re fun and Percy’s slightly stunned, slightly snarky voice really works well for the plots.

Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen YangGraphic Novel
Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Both Mushroom and I read Boxers, and I additionally read Saints.  I’ve been a huge fan of Yang’s work for awhile now.  This two book set is about the Boxer Rebellion in China.  My college major was focused on Chinese history, so I really appreciated the historical side of the story, especially the complex motivations of the characters.  Both stories have an element of fantasy in them, but the fantasy also helps to illuminate the way real people felt and thought at the time.  The way the books tie together at the end is cleverly done.  I think the books stand with Maus as entries into the great tradition of historical fiction in graphic novels.  BalletBoy did read Boxers, but it’s not one that I would have suggested to him yet.  He was interested and I didn’t feel the content justified me taking it from him, but be aware that there is a good deal of violence in the story.

If You're Reading This, It's Too Late (Secret, #2)BalletBoy’s Pleasure Reading
If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late by Pseudonymous Bosch
I’ve been trying to wean the boys off reading and rereading the same few books, so BalletBoy immediately picked this book back up with some relief.  It’s a tricky balance to strike between pushing them to read something new and letting them read whatever they like.  However, his pleasure at picking this up again after a hiatus and his quick progress tells me I was right to put a temporary kibosh on Wimpy Kid rereads at bedtime reading.

human body books for kisSchool Reading
Human Body Detectives by Heather Manley
I had gotten a really good deal on the ebook versions of this series and I assigned them as independent school reading this go around.  They are just the right length for that, as the kids can read them in about twenty minutes or less.  I’ve written before about my desire for living science books to mesh both quality writing and detailed science together in a way that makes the science feel integral to the story.  This series isn’t perfect.  I wish the science was a little more in depth and that the writing was a little more engaging.  The science is very focused on “healthy living,” which is good, but also as much about lifestyle as science, though certainly it was a lifestyle message I could get behind.  The art is okay but certain words in the text get extra illustration around them, which I found distracting and odd.  However, it does mesh the story with the science reasonably well and there is solid information in the books, so I’m not complaining too hard.  Because the books are sold to the school market as an educational series, I’ve seen them mentioned a lot in the homeschool world.  If you can get a really good deal on them, I do think they’re worth it, especially for early elementary.  Each book also contains some simple activities about the topic in the story.

October Books

Since I’ve been doing less specific book blogging, I thought I’d try a monthly book roundup with the best books we’re reading.  We’ll see how that goes.  Obviously October is over, but here’s the highlights.

The Human Body (Hardcover) ~ Seymour Simon (Author) Cover ArtSchool Reading
The Human Body by Seymour Simon
We always have piles of books for school reading, but I’ve been especially appreciating the Seymour Simon body series.  They’re so perfect for independent fourth grade reading.  They’re long and in depth enough to be challenging, but not so long or detailed to be overwhelming.  I also like the illustrations in the body series.

Calder Game (Hardcover) ~ Blue Balliett (Author) and Bre... Cover ArtAudio Book
The Calder Game by Blue Balliett
We’re to the final entrance in this art detectives series and it’s just as pleasing as the others, which we’ve listened to or read in the last year at various points.  In this volume, Calder Pillay leaves his Chicago neighborhood to visit England with his father and encounters an Alexander Calder sculpture that is about to be the victim of a crime.  Meanwhile, his friends Tommy and Petra are left back at home with a terrible teacher and a shaky friendship.  I love the way that Balliett lets balance be a theme in this book.  Things are unbalanced everywhere, which, of course, plays right into the art theme.  I read this one myself when it first came out, but I’m enjoying listening to it again.  We need to get to the National Gallery to visit the Calder Room, where I don’t think we’ve actually been in at least a couple of years.  The kids remembered some of the specific sculptures referenced in the book, but it is nice to have a reason to go see them again.

Black Hearts in Battersea (Paperback) ~ Joan Aiken (Author) Cover ArtRead Aloud
Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken
From art mysteries to historical ones (or alternate historical, anyway).  I let this be the first read aloud of the year and we all really enjoyed it.  In this story, which takes place in an alternate late-18th century London, Simon, a young orphan and artist, comes to London to find a friend and instead finds a plot against the government.  There are a series of wild misadventures, including a shipwreck and a balloon escape.  The book is a bit slow at first and the dialect took even us Anglophiles a little while to ease into, but in the end, it was greatly enjoyed by all.

Darth Paper Strikes Back: An Origami Yoda Book (Hardcover) ~ Tom... Cover ArtMushroom’s Pleasure Read
Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger
After puttering around with many different birthday gift books, Mushroom settled on reading the second Origami Yoda book and said he enjoyed it very much.  BalletBoy has already read them all and liked them so much, he went as Origami Yoda for Halloween.

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The Name of this Book Is Secret (Secret Series) (Paperback) ~ Ps... Cover ArtBalletBoy’s Pleasure Read
The Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch
I haven’t read this series, so I can only pass along that BalletBoy has enjoyed the first book very much, enough to stay up too late reading it and enough to demand that I buy banana chips so he can make the main character’s special trail mix recipe.  It is in the grand and very recent tradition of books that address the reader directly and when the book tells him to pay close attention or use the bathroom before reading a chapter so he won’t need to be interrupted, he always takes it very seriously.

Cardboard (Paperback) ~ Doug Tennapel Cover ArtGraphic Novel
Cardboard by Doug Tenapel
The boys received this graphic novel for their birthday.  It’s dark and a little bit odd, about a cardboard creation that comes to life and gets out of hand.  It’s full color and had an interesting style.  They both really enjoyed it and Mushroom especially is looking forward to reading more by Tenapel, who has many graphic novels for kids and adults.

Savvy (Paperback) ~ Ingrid Law (Author) Cover ArtMushroom’s Required Reading
Savvy by Ingrid Law
This is such a wonderful little book.  It has been on the long side for Mushroom, who is a slightly slow reader.  However, he has enjoyed getting to know Mibs and figure out her savvy, or her special power, with her.  He was very intrigued by the idea that you could have a contemporary fantasy like this one, where things are magical, but also very realistic.

Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt! (Unforgettable Americans) (Paper... Cover ArtBalletBoy’s Required Reading
Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt by Jean Fritz
Yet again, I got suckered somehow into letting a book that wasn’t on the required list count for the required reading time.  However, after reading a short picture book biography of Teddy Roosevelt for history, BalletBoy asked could he please read something more in depth about the president.  I happened to have this on hand and it was hard to say no to his request.  It was nice to see him read some longer nonfiction for the first time.  Both the kids have grown up playing in Teddy’s shadow on Roosevelt Island, so I think it’s nice BalletBoy wanted to learn more about him.

Fangirl (Hardcover) ~ Rainbow Rowell Cover ArtFarrar’s YA Reading
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Yes, like everyone else, I read Allegiant this month.  But forget about that. Let me just gush instead about how much I love, love, loved Fangirl.  I liked it so much that I (blush) actually reread it because it went by too quickly.  Basically, the story follows neurotic Cather to college, where she has to deal with other people (other people being terribly difficult to deal with), her first romance, and choosing between the writing her professor wants her to do and the fanfiction that has garnered her a massive online following.  Meanwhile, Cather has to help her father and her twin sister with their own crises.  Bits of Cather’s fanfic end each chapter.  By the end of the book, not only was I in love with Cath, but I was dying to read the imaginary Simon Snow series about which she writes her fanfiction.  It’s clearly an alternate Harry Potter, but Rowell makes Simon Snow seem much more darkly appealing.  If only it really existed.

Required Reading Redux

It’s now been several months since we started our “required reading” program.  You can find the first post with the book list here.  Basically, I made a list of books I thought would be good third grade books.  Every month, they had to read one of their own choosing.  I purposefully listed some easier and some harder books as well as a wide variety of genres.

Fast forward to now.  Early on, we made a rule that you could choose one sequel or book by the same author to count as well.  And now we’re pretty much untethered from the list and I need to make a new one.  However, I wanted to celebrate all the books the kids read so far.  Of course, they’ve continued to read their own books for fun as well, but those are mostly easier and lighter reads than these.

Mushroom’s Books

Tornado by Betsy Byars
Paddle to the Sea by Holling C. Holling
Frindle by Andrew Clements
A Week in the Woods by Andrew Clements
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater
Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averil
Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary

BalletBoy’s Books

Tornado by Betsy Byars
Frindle by Andrew Clements
Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averil
Jenny at Sea by Esther Averil
Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary
Freddy the Detective by Walter Brooks
The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farmby Betty MacDonald
*Additionally, I’ll give BalletBoy half credit.  He read half of Ribsy, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Poppy.

Overall, I’ve been incredibly happy with our required reading system.  Mushroom has read a great variety of books, which he has loved.  BalletBoy has discovered that while he dislikes real animals, he really likes them in books.  Also, I’ve discovered that he’d rather read a sequel than anything else and that while he’s more likely to stay up late reading, he also is the pickiest reader ever!

Right now, Mushroom is working on The Bad Beginning from the Series of Unfortunate Events.  BalletBoy is thinking about reading another Freddy book since he’s so fond of always picking the sequels option.  I’m thinking about having them read a book together, namely My Side of the Mountain, which I think we would all enjoy and which would fit in with our nature study this year.

Of course, the kids read for pleasure as well, but neither of them are voracious readers and if given the choice, I’m pretty sure BalletBoy would never finish anything.  This has ensured that everyone keeps going with reading a good, challenging book, even though making time for it can be tough sometimes.

Summer Reading Rewards

We went to the library and I let the kids sign up for summer reading last week.  I also made them pick mounds and mounds of books.  Nearly everything they picked was below their reading level.  We now have tons of Tintin, Lunch Lady, Stone Rabbit, Araminta Spookie and even an A to Z Mysteries title, which is a series BalletBoy first read part of nearly two years ago.  The one challenge was that Mushroom picked up the first Spiderwick book, which is probably right at his reading level or a slight stretch.

Come fall we’ll start doing a little bit of required reading along with self-selected reading, so I’m not worried.  Also, I’m mindful of the need to practice and build fluency.  Plus, there’s all that evidence that letting kids self-select books for summer reading helps a lot more than providing them with quality literature.  Take that, twaddle-callers.

I’m not usually for rewards programs, but as I’ve said before, I’m not going to prevent my kids from participating in them.  Last year, the library’s reward for summer reading was free donuts from a chain donut store if you read at least an hour.  This year, there are apparently cheapie prizes for reading for three hours and if you read for eight hours then you’ll get entered into a contest to win a free e-reader.  It’s like winning a bill for more books.

The kids came home so fired up to read that they proceeded to read for a shocking three and a half hours in the twenty-four hours following signing up.  They do read for pleasure almost daily, but it tends to be more in the half hour to an hour at most range.  And maybe that Spiderwick book wasn’t much of a stretch for Mushroom, as he read nearly the whole thing in one day, along with several graphic novels.

Sigh.  Kids, you’re proving the reward givers right.  Cut it out.