Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Cooking with Kids

Kids ruin everything, don’t they? Before they started being interesting and wanting to get involved in everything I do, cooking and baking were soothing activities. Chopping vegetables and measuring flour were flow activities.

Now I have to do it with kids pulling up chairs to the counter and pulling out ingredients on the floor as I try to walk around. I trip on them. They cry. I burn stuff as I comfort them. I resent my ineffective use of birth control.

But then, I remember that a) I am an “adult” and b) I love my kids. So I include them in the action. They help me stir, measure, pour, gather ingredients, set the table, taste, and even chop stuff.

Kids in the kitchen, around knives and heat, can be scary. But I can’t protect them forever, right? I have explained to Summer that if she uses a stove or an oven, she is going to burn herself. If she uses a knife, she is going to cut herself. She has burned herself, she has cut herself, and she still loves cooking.
Henry gets in on the action too. He is 22 months, and he:
  • ·      Cracks eggs
  • ·      Stirs
  • ·      Pours after I measure
  • ·      Gathers ingredients
  • ·      Makes toast
  • ·      Brushes pastries with an egg wash
  • ·      Creams butter and sugar with a hand mixer with my help

Summer, who will be five next month, does all that plus:
  • ·      Separates eggs
  • ·      Pours pancake batter
  • ·      Flips pancakes
  • ·      Cracks eggs into a pan
  • ·      Flips eggs
  • ·      Measures
  • ·      Cuts apples and potatoes
  • ·      Creams butter and sugar with a hand mixer by herself
  • ·      Whip egg whites
  • ·      Folds egg whites

Really, once I get into it, I enjoy it. Soon Summer, and eventually Henry, will be able to cook by themselves. And perhaps my absolute favorite memories growing up were cooking with my dad. So memory making, building self-reliance, having a fun time with kids? Yeah, it’s worth the hassle.


Thursday, March 6, 2014

How I Want to Be

During law school I didn’t just learn about the hearsay exceptions and the requirements for a valid will and presidential powers. My professors dedicated a good portion of teaching how to be a good person, because a bad person makes a bad lawyer. So much of what they taught me about honesty, forthrightness, and understanding has stuck with me.

My favorite piece of advice that a professor shared with me came in the form of a description of the lawyer that my professor admired most. This lawyer consistently understood and articulated the argument of his opponents. He made a better case for his opponent’s position than his opponents did, and then proceeded to respectfully explain what was wrong with his opponent’s position. And what made him an ethical attorney was his commitment to only taking cases he believed in; he didn’t argue that there were weaknesses in cases that weren’t weak.

I think this attorney (and I have no idea who he is) demonstrates a perfect balance of competency, respect, honesty, and ethical behavior. It demonstrates a compassionate attitude toward his opponent and humility that he doesn’t have the only good argument.

This is really how I want to be. I am far from this, but I’m learning. I’m trying to remember that everyone has good reasons for believing what they believe. I’m learning to take a moment to step back and see how issues that I disagree with can make a lot of sense. I am learning to be willing to change my mind, even if it makes me look silly. I am learning to not make up my mind so quickly, and then find post-hoc reasons for my position. And I’m getting better.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Why I Won't Tell My Kids They're Smart

When someone calls my kids smart, I wince. I know they mean well, and I do very much appreciate it anytime someone gives my children positive attention, especially to compliment them. But I take great pains not to call my kids smart because I think it's one of the most counter-productive things I can do.

A while ago, someone very kid played an iPhone app with Summer. Summer really loved this person (and continues to love!) this person, and again, I so much appreciated the time this person took to play with my daughter. This person said, "Guess what? When you play this game, it makes you smarter! And you're already smart, so you'll be really good at this game."

Summer did well with the easy levels, and everyone (including herself) congratulated her on being smart. But then the game got harder, and when she couldn't beat a level on the first or second try, Summer lost interest. "I guess I'm not that smart," she said.

You can see where I'm going with this.

I don't think this particular instance is a big deal. Relatives and my friends can keep calling Summer smart all they want, because they won't have the influence I have. But as a parent, I don't want Summer to think a whole lot about being smart. I want her to know that being smart means nothing, and grit and hard work means everything.

I you think about it, after a certain threshold being "smart" doesn't mean a whole lot. Sure, it's important to know how to read and write and think about things in an abstract way. But Summer doesn't know how to tie her shoes or say her alphabet or read the word "sun" because she's smart. It's because she practiced.

Science backs this up. Well, soft science I guess. In an article called "The Perils of Praise" here is a description of an experiment a researcher conducted:

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.” 
Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

The article continues:

Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.
In a subsequent round, none of the fifth-graders had a choice. The test was difficult, designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level. Predictably, everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children, divided at random at the study’s start, responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’ ” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.” 
Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck’s researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.
And the conclusion:
“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

Something experts recommend, which I'm sure everyone has heard, is praising effort instead of the result. I don't do this because it's just so hard. I can't help but be excited when she spells a word by herself or gets a math problem right. So maybe I'm giving her a therapy bill right here. But I always tell her that if she wants to get something right, she has to work hard. When she asks how I know everything that I know, I tell her it's because I worked hard and practiced a lot. So hopefully I won't have to deal with kids who, when school gets hard and they can't get by on their smarts anymore, they will be willing to work hard to reach their potential instead of getting bummed out that they're not as smart as they thought they were. But we'll see. :)


Friday, February 28, 2014

Montessori Preschool

Summer, through a series of bumbling steps on my part, is finally going to the preschool of my dreams. It's a Montessori school. There are significant disadvantages to it. There is the distance. Seriously, she commutes to preschool. How crazy is that? It's a 12-minute drive away, but there are preschools three minutes away. The cost is pretty crazy too. And then I don't really even know that Montessori is going to have any significant long-term advantages on her well-being in the long run.

But I still think we made the right choice. Montessori is a philosophy I believe in. It emphasizes students learning at their own pace, and what they are interested in. It emphasizes carefully teaching a concept before the student is expected to learn it on her own. It emphasizes communal learning--in the mixed class sizes, the older children teach the younger children. It emphasizes self-reliance because each student is expected to do as much as they can by themselves. It emphasizes respect and order. In short, it is designed to prepare the world for the world as it actually is, rather than focusing education around a curriculum designed by adults (who usually don't even teach!) that has an emphasis around the academic world as opposed to the real-life world.

Several years ago I watched this TED talk about how schools kill creativity (a bit of a dramatic statement, if you ask me, but whatever):

Here is an excerpt from the talk:

Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. If you’re not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this, by the way, we stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is, we are educating people out of their creative capacities.

And another:

Academic ability has really come to dominate our view of intelligence because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.

I don't think Montessori is 100% in line with what I think education ought to be. There isn't much emphasis on dance. If I want my kids to get the perfect education, that is something I'll have to figure out on my own. However, I feel very lucky to know that Summer goes to a school that aligns with my values.

Summer goes to school every day from 9-3. This is a lot of time away from home for a four-year-old, especially a four-year-old with a stay-at-home parent. I didn't expect that she would settle into her school schedule that she would have for the rest of her years at home so soon. But it has been wonderful for her and wonderful for me.

She doesn't have separation anxiety. She looks forward to going to school almost every day (she still has her moments). And when she comes home, we have really lovely, precious times together. I think absence has made the heart grow fonder.

And I feel like she is really cared for there. Each teacher truly respects the students. Summer will never be belittled, bullied, lost in the shuffle, or made to undergo busywork that doesn't suit her. So if she is gone for a long time each day in that kind of environment, it doesn't bother me one bit.

So what am I doing with my spare time? Not much. Well, I am taking care of another child. But I do look forward to the time he is in Montessori so that I can work and have a little more time to myself. Because maybe absence will make our hearts grow fonder as well.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I Don't Like DC...Right Now

Lots of people are asking me how I like the DC area. I can't help answer with a "meh," but it's not really a fair answer. We have lived here two summers, the summer of '10 and '11, and those summers were fantastic. One summer was spent in Derwood, Maryland, which is a suburban/rural place about thirty minutes outside of DC (with no traffic). There were lots of trees, and it was hot and humid and there were tons of fireflies. It reminded me of Georgia, my second home. It was just really lovely.

The second summer was spent in Arlington--the same city we live in now but a different neighborhood. It of course has a very urban feel, and getting to the city in five minutes by car (and is) just fantastic. As I have said in a previous post, we often took Nathaniel to work, and then drove to the mall and waited for the parking to start around 9, and then hit some museums. It was really a lot of fun, and again, I didn't mind the humidity.

So then there is now. It's February. It's snowy. It's cold. We live on the ninth floor of a high rise on a street full of hotels, and getting out of the house is an ordeal. The kids don't have snow clothes. So do I like living here now? No. Will I like it when it warms up? Yes.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Elevators, Then and Now

Have you ever read The Phantom Tollbooth? It is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s about a boy named Milo who learns, in traditional hero’s journey fashion, how to enjoy life and all it has to offer, especially education.

At the beginning of the book, Milo rushes home from school every day, takes the elevator to his floor, goes to his room, and flops on his bed, bored out of his mind. As a child, the main thing that struck me about this sequence of events was the elevator. Milo got to ride in an elevator every day? I was insanely jealous.

Perhaps because I spent most of my childhood years in a town with a population of around 8,000, I always dreamed of living in a big city. It seemed so exciting, and people there rode elevators every day!

Now, I live in a big city in a big building, and I ride an elevator every day. And it is the worst. If you have never lived in this situation before, just imagine: you have to wait for your turn just to leave the building. You have to carry groceries not just from your driveway into the house, but across the parking garage, through the door to the building, in the elevator, and then out the elevator, all before you get to your front door. And when you finally get to the car and realize you've forgotten something, it takes a full five minutes to go get it. It is no fun.

And then there is the issue of kids. They love to push the elevator button, and I think at first they liked the general idea of elevators. But they also love to push ALL the elevator buttons. And if you leave the your front door open for a minute, a kid can rush down the hall, push the button, and hop in an elevator, all without you. That hasn’t happened yet, but I can’t ignore the possibility. And then getting them in and out of elevators before the door closes? Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

I suppose I am glad I am having the experience of living in a high rise with nice views and an elevator, even if it’s just to say that I have done it, and I don’t want to do it anymore. It should come as no surprise that when our lease is up, we will move. There are tons of really great places just a few blocks from here that cost less and have…wait for it…driveways! And no elevators! Right now nothing sounds better.


Friday, January 10, 2014

Back to The Blog

Obviously there has been a big break in my posting here. There are a lot of reasons, but the biggest one is basic embarrassment. I have been asking myself: do I need a public record of all my ups and downs? Am I actually contributing something valuable to the internet or is my blog just a symptom of the narcissism of my generation? Am I doing this for myself, or so that other people can see how awesome my life is and how great I am for keeping a regularly updated blog? How can I live with myself when I spend hours working on a post and it only gets one comment?

I am currently going to a fantastic therapist. For the first time it dawned on me that I have really high standards for myself. I didn't think I did have high standards for myself anymore because since undergrad, and to an extent my mission, my performance in the areas of my life that "count" have been mediocre. But I do still have high standards for myself as a mother, for example, just not in some areas. I sent Summer to school the other day with gum in her hair. I let the kids fool around on Apple products more than the Surgeon General recommends. I scream at them when I have had too much. I drag them to Costco with old food crusted on their faces.

But I realized that my embarrassment at my failures in these areas is mostly based on what others will think. It's not based on the standards I have set for myself in the areas I believe are most important. And when I chastise myself for these things, I never do it in context of all the things I do well. I am working on stopping that and realizing that when I make a mistake in these things, it's because I just have different priorities than other parents (and definitely people who aren't parents).

So the same goes for this blog. People are might judge it as self-centered, lacking in visuals, too personal, too intellectual, too boring, too sporadic, etc. But if it's something I'm proud of, then that's all that matters.

So I'm back. For now at least.