January 10, 2017

The (Very Simple) Five-Finger Rule

I very regularly address questions from home-educating moms wondering about tools for determining the "reading level" of books they're considering for their children. Now in truth, my thoughts about "reading level" are similar to my views about the overall notion of "grade level" - i.e., "reading level" labels on books are largely arbitrary and irrelevant, and we should devote our energy to finding great (non-twaddle) books for our kids rather than worrying about their "level" as determined by some educrat who has never met our children. However, since our overall goal is (should be) to grow bibliophiles who seek to be lifelong learners, we want to appropriately challenge our kids without overwhelming them; thus, finding a method for determining the appropriateness of a particular book at a specific period of time in a child's life does have value...not so we can document what "level" a child is reading, but simply to properly respect and value each child's individual learning process.

We do not, however, need complicated algorithms, expensive materials, or even the latest app for that endeavor. In fact, we each carry with us every day a most effective tool - the five fingers on one hand - which can be used at any moment to employ the Five-Finger Rule for Text Readability. When a child chooses a book, just follow this procedure:
  1. Direct the child to read (aloud) the first full page of the book's text; 
  2. As he reads, subtly (so as not to intimidate him) keep note with one finger each time he cannot decode a word at all or struggles quite a bit to get it.
You'll know the suitability of the overall book based on how many fingers you use by the time the child reaches the bottom of the page:
  • 0-1 Finger: The child's reading ability is above the level of the book. That doesn't mean he shouldn't read it - there is intellectual and emotional value in reading even "easy" books - but it won't stretch his abilities;
  • 2-3 Fingers: The book is at the child's "instructional level." In other words, this book will be an appropriate challenge without being overwhelming; 
  • 4-5 Fingers: The child is not ready to read this book independently, as it is above his current reading ability. You might save it for a later time, or if the child is really interested, simply use it as a parent-led read-aloud or (perhaps) try tackling it in "buddy reading" format with the parent.
And that's all there is to it - a "diagnostic test" accomplished in a matter of minutes in a very low-key manner using something you always have with you!


December 6, 2016

Strategically Winning December

My family thought I’d taken my well-earned nickname – “Rou-Tina” – a bit too far recently when I spent almost an entire day mapping out our December activities. My daughters and I take a break from most of our homeschool academic studies for most of the month, but I wanted to plan for the Advent devotionals we’ll be doing, and I needed to schedule daily practice time for their various instruments and make note of recitals and outside lesson times that occur throughout the month. There are also a few non-negotiable family traditions to incorporate, and I thought it would be fun to consider participating in some well-chosen Christmas-oriented community events.

Mapping it all out in table format allowed my picture-smart brain to see all the options, which was part of my goal. But it also helped me commit to another goal, which is to avoid holiday over-busyness. I know all too well – from personal experience as well as the regular laments of far too many friends – how easy it is to allow this time of year to become harried and hectic, the very antithesis of the beautiful, peaceful, reflective season it should be. I didn’t map things out to set a regimented, inflexible schedule – I fully anticipate that we’ll add some things and eliminate others as we go. But by laying out all the possible activities of which I’m already aware, I’ve been able to set a plan that I believe will allow us to actually enjoy the season.

Of course, every family has its own level of “tolerance” for a healthy amount of busyness. Thus, what would be crazy-busy for one family would represent the height of boredom for another, and what would constitute “just enough” activity for one would be chaos for another. I am planning for quiet, low-key weekday mornings and roughly two or three afternoon or evening activities of various sorts each week. I’ve avoided double scheduling – i.e., planning for two outside activities in one day – and, in fact, I’ve aimed for an activity no more than every other day because I know what my kids and I can handle. For each weekend – when my husband is home – I’ve listed one or two events to consider, and we’ll decide as a family when the time comes whether to do both, just one, or neither.

I realize that planning in December seems “unromantic” to some; in fact, there are those who appear to thrive on flying by the seat of their pants all year. But, realistically speaking, it seems that most of us too easily fall into the very stressful trap of non-stop activity because we haven’t taken time to set a course of action. I’d rather have my family tease me now and thank me later than find myself sniping at them because I’ve become over-extended. Strategy can win a war and it can “win December” too.

Photo Credit: Green Bay Botanical Garden

November 15, 2016

A Surprise from the Politicians

I’m writing the day after our 2016 presidential election. I stayed up past two in the morning waiting for the results and then watching Mr. Trump’s victory speech. I’ve kept our TV on in the background all morning and caught portions of Paul Ryan’s press conference before asking my daughters to pause their homeschool lessons in order to watch Mrs. Clinton’s concession speech and, later, President Obama’s summative remarks. And what most stood out to me in each case was the speaker’s tone.

I’m not naïve about the ways of politicians. I understand that some of the words spoken by each orator were actually veiled lies, and that others were undoubtedly delivered under protest – i.e., that the speakers forced themselves toward diplomacy even though they surely would have preferred harshness if left to their own natural inclinations. But I was impressed with each speaker’s conscious decision to consider the greater good and, thus, deliver his or her remarks with a measured tone. As one of my daughter’s said with some incredulity, “They all sound so mature!”

Obviously, that hasn’t always been the case lately – whether in this election cycle or in general, whether amidst the bureaucrats or among friends. Indeed, we suffer as a nation from a terrible dearth of civility, and it’s nothing short of tragic that mature discourse is so rare it takes us by surprise. We should be able to remember that “a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15.1), and it’s appalling that we so often choose rancor. But let’s take advantage of the surprising tone set in all of today’s political speeches, and use it as an object lesson in our own lives.

For example, if we truly do aim to build and grow healthy relationships with our children, we must purpose to communicate well. Communication includes a number of components: an openness to listening, our facial expressions and body language, the actual words we say, and the tone with which we deliver those words. And as parents – for the ultimate good of our children – we must decide to actively pursue “best practices” in each case. Thus, we can follow the surprising lead set by the politicians today, choosing our words carefully, and consciously employing a measured, calm tone even in the midst of stressful situations with our children – and even when they (in their childish immaturity) do not (yet) respond in kind.

It’s not easy, but it’s possible. And – just as my kids and I felt led to listen once we realized the politicians were choosing kindness and grace – we’ll set the stage for healthy interactions in the process.


November 1, 2016

Do They Really Know?

Though my girls are teens, I still remember the details of coaching them through some of their early milestones: learning to walk, potty training, “pumping” on a swing. As parents, we seem to innately understand that very young children need specific instruction delivered with a smile and big doses of praise and enthusiasm. But somewhere along the way, we too often lose sight of all that, coming to act instead as if kids should “just know” and should simply do what’s “required” of them with or without positive feedback.

We insist they clean their rooms to our satisfaction – and scold and deliver consequences when they “fail.” But do we take the time to clean with them, step by step, talking as we go about what we expect and why? We bemoan the fact that they’re on their phones “all the time.” But do we set definite parameters and limits, detailing why our rules are beneficial and then providing consistent checks and guidance? We berate them for “bad grades” in English class, demanding they “try harder.” But have we bothered to make sure they really do know – step by step – how to write the essays being required of them? We scowl and insist they remain pure “or else.” But do we set aside our personal discomfort to calmly and clearly answer specific questions – even the very hard ones – which our kids will have along the way through their teen and young adult years?

All kids can learn some things “by osmosis.” My older daughter is actually a natural writer; she “just knew” how to organize her thoughts and insert compelling vocabulary without much instruction. My younger daughter essentially taught herself to sew and has created beautiful skirts and dresses without referring to printed patterns. Self-directed learning is a wonderful thing we should facilitate it. However, we hurt our kids when we assume they know and can meet our expectations without first taking time to specifically coach them through a process, providing appropriate praise and encouragement along the way.

In that vein, why not pause today and take inventory? Pull out a piece of paper or open a new Word document and list tasks and behaviors you expect of each child right now. Then detail the specific steps required to find success in each case and carefully evaluate whether or not a child actually has the necessary knowledge and skills to meet your expectations. If you don’t know, plan to find out by having a pleasant, honest conversation with the child. And where you realize they don’t yet have what it takes to succeed, determine a path toward getting them there – via your clear, positive coaching. Only then can you hold them accountable with integrity and maintain the strength of a positive relationship.

Photo Credit: jepoycamboy

October 18, 2016

Yes, No, Wait

As I’ve studied the Bible, I’ve learned that God always answers every prayer, though not every answer is yes. Of course, He sometimes does say yes in short order, and the provision is undeniably clear. But sometimes He must say no, and sometimes we don’t see an answer right away, which means He’s telling us to wait. If we accept Romans 8.28 – “that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him” – we can eventually understand the necessity of the no and wait answers even if we wish things could be different.

If we’re doing our job as parents, we’ll seek to communicate with our kids as He does. That means we must discern which answer – yes, no, or wait – to provide in various situations, and our motivation in every case must be for our kids’ ultimate good. We can’t always say yes, because we must protect them from physical, emotional, or spiritual harm they may be unable to discern for themselves. But when we say no or wait, we must have a legitimate reason fueled by a desire to provide for their long-term well-being.

I recently found myself in a situation like this with one of my daughters. She was offered an unexpected babysitting job and desperately wanted me to say yes because she loves caring for children and had been told the family “really needed” a sitter right away. But we’d never met anyone in the family. I considered saying yes because my daughter’s been babysitting for several church friends for about a year, and I trust her abilities. But I didn’t have peace about allowing her to go, sight unseen, to a stranger’s home, and my husband agreed with my concerns. So we ultimately decided to wait – reserving the right to ultimately say no if necessary – until we could meet and vet the family.

My daughter was disappointed and frustrated. Just as when God must tell any of us no or wait, she didn’t fully understand our reasons and didn’t necessarily agree with us. I could have said, “No means no,” which is sometimes appropriate (if delivered in a loving tone) with a young child, and left it at that. But my daughter is a teen, so I felt she deserved to hear the logical reasons even though she (understandably) wanted to refute them. Then we used the situation as an opportunity to provide guidance and instruction by helping her create a resume as well as a list of questions to ask the family. She and I will meet with them soon and use our impressions – as well as their feelings about her appropriateness for their family’s needs – to decide on our final answer.

We can’t always say
yes. Our kids won’t always be happy with our decisions. But if we keep the lines of communication open – if we explain and guide rather than simply mandate – our relationships with them will remain strong over time. Then they’ll be able to accept the no or wait – and they’ll eventually understand the reasons, too.


Photo Credit: Greens MPs

October 4, 2016

Be Circumspect and Judicious

A few times a year, I run across “shaming videos” on social media. You know them, too: videos posted after a parent becomes so angry with a child’s bad behavior that he or she plans a deliberate means of humiliating the child, tapes the event, and then shares it on Facebook and Instagram, begging others to make it “go viral” with the supposed goal of “reforming” the child via public abasement. Tragically, those videos usually garner several hundred thousand “likes” and hundreds of positive comments.

Much more regularly – at least a handful of times every week – I read posts in which a parent publicly rants about his or her child’s bad behavior. The child is often referenced by name or other personally identifiable information, and the parent displays very little restraint in detailing the extent of the child’s shameful acts. Often included in these diatribes are phrases like, “He drives me crazy,” or even, “She makes me sick.”

Parenting is hard; I know that. I’ve been blessed with generally compliant children – but they’re human and we’ve had our fair share of challenges over the years…with more to come, I’m sure. And I’ve listened to – and counseled when appropriate – dozens and dozens of other parents with deep concerns over wayward or otherwise struggling children. Sometimes kids’ behavior drives us to justifiable frustration and even anger. Sometimes we reach our limit and feel we must vent. And we can feel so stuck that we’re desperate for the opinion of someone – anyone – else.

But we must be very careful. It’s one thing to vent to a dear friend – offline and out of earshot of one’s children or anyone else; it’s another thing entirely to broadcast a child’s misdeeds publicly. And make no mistake about it: just as we wisely counsel our kids to be careful about what they put on social media because nothing there is really private, so, too, the same guidelines apply to our own posts – no matter how tight our settings or “secret” a group. Likewise, it’s one thing to post a general parenting question, even a desperate one – social media can be a big help in that regard; it’s another thing entirely to lambast and excoriate a child in the public setting of social media, no matter how terrible his behavior may have been.

If we want our kids to maintain open communication with us throughout their lives – and I hope that’s our goal, because it’s through openness that we grow and maintain the relationships that will enable us to guide them through the travails of growing up – they have to trust us. But if they discover we’ve betrayed their privacy by maligning them on social media – and they will find out, either by seeing the posts, hearing someone talk about them, or simply via our attitudes that will seep into our real life interactions with them – we’ll kill that trust. And open communication dies with it.

Get wise counsel when needed. But be circumspect and judicious. And think before you share on social media. Would you want someone airing
your dirty laundry all over Facebook without your consent? Of course not. And our children deserve from their parents the same common decency we expect others to give us.

Photo Credit: ellyn.

September 20, 2016

Front-Loading the Effort

My two daughters have always talked a lot. In fact, from the time each “found” words as a baby, it’s seemed as if the only time one or the other isn’t talking is when they’re asleep…and at least one of them occasionally talks then too! Whether it was wondering about some aspect of the morning’s Bible reading, narrating the detailed plotline of a Barbie game they’d taken hours to design, racing in from the yard to describe the antics of the squirrel family inhabiting our big tree, or getting off on some meandering rabbit trail during a read-aloud time, the questions and exclamations seemed to fly non-stop. And now that they’re teens, they’re actually still talking; in fact, we sometimes get so deeply engaged in conversation that we almost lose track of a day’s to-do list or go well past “lights out” time in the evening.

I am not an indulgent parent; I don’t let my kids interrupt my conversations with others, and after they’d given up afternoon naps, I instituted a daily “rest time” in which they were required to silently watch one of our age-appropriate DVDs so I could have an hour of quiet. And even now, I will say, “Girls, my ears are tired; can I have some time?” But I’m not a saint. I have my fair share of moments when a child is talking to me while my mind is elsewhere. And I’ve also found myself occasionally hollering, “Would you just be quiet for five minutes?!”

Thankfully, though, I’d latched on from the very beginning of my kids’ lives to one key point various writers and speakers counsel about communication in the parent-child relationship – namely, that kids need and want the security of knowing they’re actually heard by their parents.

Setting boundaries is entirely appropriate; a child must know he cannot always be the center of attention and that his parents are not at his beck and call. But even in the exhaustion of raising young children, we must be careful to distinguish between boundaries and self-centeredness. Training my child to wait quietly while I finish a conversation in the church lobby is appropriate, but putting him off for half an hour while I play a Candy Crush on Facebook is not. Expecting a child to entertain herself for age-appropriate periods of time is healthy, but keeping her at bay all day is not, even if the cause of my busyness is a need to complete legitimate household chores; instead of brushing the child away, I need to include her in the work and talk with her during the process.

Choosing to be engaged in the communication process with our kids – actively listening often, knowing when and how to set boundaries – is hard work. It requires patience and perseverance beyond our own strength. But remember that kids – of all ages – need and want their parents in this regard. And front-loading the effort when they’re young really does pay the dividends you’ll want later on: teens who remain open with you. Your ears will still tire then, but you’ll be thankful for it.


September 6, 2016

It’s Time for a Cease-Fire

Education is a hot-button issue.

In fact, it’s exceedingly rare to find a person who doesn’t have an opinion about what’s “best” in terms of kids’ learning. Some insist that public school offers the best opportunities and should be mandatory for all, and others maintain that homeschooling is the only way to go. Still others assert that private school provides the best of both worlds. And when we add the voices supporting each of the vast, almost infinite, variety of options within “the big three” – charter, virtual, voucher, Charlotte Mason, unit studies, classical, unschooling, Christian, Montessori, alternative…just to name a few – we find ourselves surrounded by an ear-splitting cacophony of aggressive activism.

That said, opinions in and of themselves are not bad. And children’s education is so important that the existence of strong opinions is understandable. In fact, anyone who knows me personally is familiar with my background as a classroom teacher in “at-risk” schools, the pride I now take in being a homeschool mom, and my particular, deeply held convictions about educational theory and practice.

But it’s time to poke our heads up out of the trenches and get some perspective.

First, we must each realize that we don't have a right to an opinion about what's best for anyone else's child. My husband and I fully considered every educational option, have taken into account the ramifications of each, and have come to a conclusion about what's best for our children. We cannot be swayed...and we shouldn't have to endure unsolicited lectures - or "helpful suggestions" - from proponents of other options. But neither do we have a right to push our views onto parents who have chosen differently. In fact, unless we’re asked, we have no standing from which to state an opinion. Out of respect for parental authority, we must assume that all parents have fully researched the matter for their own children and have come to their conclusions in good faith. We might not agree, but it's simply not our place to butt in.

Conversely, we must also decide to stop being offended by others’ choices. My friend’s decision to enroll her children in the local private school is not an indictment of my homeschooling. My meme celebrating homeschooling is not an attack on a fellow church member’s decision to send her children to the public school down the street. And my relative’s announcement that his daughter made all-state for the public school’s volleyball team is not a jab at schooling options that offer different benefits. It’s possible that a rude, immature person might actually intend to offend in such a way, but why do we let ourselves assume the worst?

The “school wars” have grown tiresome. And no one will ever win if we insist on continuing to usurp others’ parental authority over their own children. But if we can choose to agree that the widest possible variety of options should always be available and that each child’s parents have the right to decide for their own kids, we can reach détente. It's time for a cease-fire.


August 23, 2016

The First Thing First

“…[Jesus] is the head of the body,
the church;
He is the beginning
and the firstborn from among the dead,
so that in all things
He may have preeminence.”

~ Colossians 1.18

Thinking about how to address this week’s topic – getting off to a great start in the new school year – has been a challenge. After all, a “great start” can mean so many different things depending entirely on the people and circumstances involved.

Most who use public or private institutional schools are launching a “new school year” right about now – but some have already started and some won’t begin for another two or three weeks. Additionally, each school’s “culture” and learning environment is unique to itself. And then there are the homeschoolers. Though many home-educating families follow a traditional calendar and are, thus, starting a “new year” right now as well, some have designed other types of schedules so that they might be in the middle of a “school year” this month. And still others literally go continuously and year-round with no discernible “new start” at all.

A “great start” also means very different things for different people within those educational settings. For example, the expectations held by a five-year old and her parents look nothing like what a 17-year old and his parents are aiming for over the next several months. A “great start” for a classroom teacher varies, depending on what age children he serves. And what teachers want to emphasize can be markedly different from what students and their parents are thinking about, and are, perhaps, as different as night and day from what homeschooling families are considering.

However, I was recently reminded via a series of lessons through which I led my daughters that – at least for those who claim Christ as Savior and Lord – there is actually ever only one ultimate goal in every endeavor of life. Namely, as Colossians 1.18 states, “that in all things [Jesus] may have preeminence,” or first place.

With that in mind, there’s one question we can each ask of ourselves – whether we’re a student, parent or teacher, whether we’re at home or in a huge urban school, and whether we’re thinking about the start of a whole “new school year” or, simply, the beginning of a new day: What would it look like – in terms of my heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10.27) – to put Jesus Christ first in my life?

You can use that question within your position and stage of life to set goals for yourself – short-term goals for today and long-term goals to aim for over the next several months; goals for your attitude and words (Matthew 15.18); for the friendships you continue and begin…or, perhaps, choose to end; for spiritual priorities like spending time in the Word and in fellowship with other believers; for what you choose to do (and not do) with your body; for the nature of the content you decide to teach or study.

To some extent, of course, the answers to such questions will be as unique as each individual. However, the desire to give Jesus preeminence really is the best “great start” each of us could ever have. So if you want a great start, put the First Thing first.

Photo Credit: Celestial Meeker

August 2, 2016

Who’s the Boss?

“[It] dawned on me [recently] that I need to really get a handle on my children's activities. I do not want to be managed by their activities; I want to manage them. I need to say no to some stuff. They will survive without [doing ‘everything’].”

These are the words of a wise woman I met via a homeschool moms’ support group – but, of course, her sentiment applies just as well to all moms. It’s also true that this is the perfect time of year to ponder our intentions for our kids’ activities – because, whether our children attend typical public or private school (i.e., following a September-to-May calendar) or we home-educate all year round, most extracurriculars operate on that typical school schedule. As such, everything is “ramping up” – either in the planning stages or actually beginning – right now. Thus, making decisions right now will ease our transition into this coming fall and beyond.

When kids are young, it’s wise – for the sake of awakening their “smarts” and genius qualities – to encourage them to try a wide variety of activities as interests dictate. However, that doesn’t mean doing “everything” all at one time. I have friends who allow each child just one away-from-home extracurricular activity per week for each “season” or semester. Near the end of each season/semester, they talk with each child to determine who would like to continue in the same activity and who would like to try something different. The children don’t clamor to do more because they realize they’ll have opportunities to try new things soon; in fact, they’re relaxed and peaceful – as are the parents – because they’re not constantly running from one activity to the next, and they have time and energy to grow their creativity, imagination, and – very importantly – family unity at home.

As children mature, they often begin to hone in on a particular activity or two, desiring to “go deep” rather than broad. And – assuming we’ve given them measured opportunities to explore a wide variety of options when they were younger – it’s perfectly appropriate to allow them to “specialize.” In fact, if a grounded teenager expresses a strong interest for a particular activity, we do her no favors by forcing her to be “well-rounded” - i.e., compelling her to join in on myriad activities just for the sake of being involved. After all, current passions might indicate potential career paths, and colleges prefer those with deep interest in one area to those who flit from club to club, trying to pad an application. And, even if a strong interest eventually changes, the teen will not have wasted his time because the perseverance he develops via delving into one passion can transfer to something else later on.

As you ponder how God has wired each of your kids and their particular ages and stages, how can you – like my friend – manage their activities this “school year” rather than allowing the activities to manage you? Who will be the boss over your calendar this year?


Photo Credit: Marathons & Dog Tags
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