We All Matter

Note: This column first appeared in the December 28, 2011 edition of the Barrow Journal.

Last week I received a touching e-mail from a man in Australia who had found a column I wrote last year about my friend, J.J. Reneaux.  She was a famous storyteller, musician and award-winning writer, and she died of cancer over ten years ago.

He wrote, “I have no great reason to write to you except that I thought it wouldn’t hurt to lend some affirmation to your feeling that she had a good and positive influence on peoples’ lives.”

He went on to tell me how he had bought her book, Cajun Folktales, while on a trip to New Orleans in the 1990s.  His eldest daughter, who is now 23, fondly remembers the tales, and his younger children enjoy them now.

He wrote of his son: “It’s certainly his favourite book and I think will be something, a shared experience, he may remember forever.”  This is important to him because he, too, is dying of cancer.

I was deeply saddened to learn about his fate, yet I was awed how J.J. is still affecting people’s lives…and even their afterlives.  And it affirmed for me a deep belief: that we all have meaning.  The stories we create in this life will keep affecting people well after we are gone.

But I’m not talking about stories we make up and write down in a book.  J.J. taught me that my personal story matters.  How do I choose to live this life?

Last year I also wrote about the kindness shown to me by an employee at the Winder Publix on Highway 11.  There was a terrible storm outside, and I needed help to my car even though I would never ask for it.  Though it was part of his job, this gentleman went the extra mile to help me, and the good cheer he showed me that morning stayed with me all day.

I’m sure we all have stories of meeting people whose enthusiasm for life is contagious.  Sure, there are those who feign happiness for the sake of appearances, but the sincere ones have an easy way about them.  We know it’s real, and it makes us feel good.

I’m not an award-winning writer whose stories will be read for many generations like J.J.’s, and I may not be remembered for bending over backwards for a stranger, but I realize that the thoughts I hold and the attitude I wear can make a difference.  Opening a door, picking up a pen that someone dropped, or even a smile can help a little. Moreso, scowling at the world, cutting someone off in traffic, or yelling at people for no good reason can have crippling affects that spread out.

That pebble thrown into water metaphor comes to my mind:  “Every act of kindness is like a pebble thrown in a pond sending out ripples far beyond where the pebble entered the water. When we’re caring and kind to our neighbors, our actions send rings of kindness that spread from neighbor to neighbor to neighbor.” That’s attributed to Angela Artemis.

If there’s one New Year’s resolution I make this year, it will be to remember that my actions have a larger meaning than I usually give them credit for.  Without my knowing it, something I said, did or wrote could affect someone miles away, long after I’m gone.  I hope you’ll remember that too.  You matter.  We all matter.

Hiking 101: Getting the Family Into Nature

One of my best Christmas presents was a request from my husband that we buy ourselves some new hiking boots and begin to make hiking a priority and a ritual in this family.  Yahoo!  A mutual love of hiking was part of why I fell for my fella, and we used to go on day hikes in the mountains often before we had children.  Though I know people who are serious hikers and strap their babies to their backs and hit the trails, that’s not us.  I had a hard enough time managing breast feeding, diaper changing and all the other demands of babies and toddlers here in a comfortable house let alone out in the wild.  But I’m thrilled my boys are getting older, and we can be more intentional about getting out into nature.

So we got our boots earlier this month, and we took advantage of the warm weather December decided to bring this year in Georgia. We wanted to break in our boots and start off easy by visiting some local parks and gardens.  It’s a good thing we did that too because we learned that with a five and two-year-old, our “hikes” are going to be more like strolls punctuated with a lot of stops, snacking and complaining.  But that’s okay.  We’ll make hikers out of these boys yet.

And hiking with my boys gives the photographer in me great pleasure.  They gave me plenty of time to find the light while they played by the water.  You can see those photos by clicking here.

The photos here are from Ft. Yargo State Park and The State Botanical Garden of Georgia.

Getting children into nature is very important, and I consider it a goal in our homeschooling lifestyle too.  For more information about getting kids and your family into nature, you might like to look at these links (which I posted in my Worthy Reads a while back):

What’s your preferred way of getting out into nature?

The Best Christmas Gifts For This Tired Mama

Lucky me: the five-year-old took over the big job of decorating the tree this year!

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on December 22, 2011.

Last week we trimmed the tree, or, actually, my five-year-old trimmed the tree.  I assembled it and put the lights on, and then he put on every single ornament by himself.  He got very irritated with me if I tried to put one on.  He wanted to do it all by himself.

I know what you’re thinking, and you are right.  It’s not the most organized tree, but it’s still quite pretty.  At least with the help of a stepladder the ornaments are not clustered at the bottom of the tree.

And this is when I realized something.  Things are starting to get a tad…a smidge…a little bit easier around here.  My boys are five and two-years-old.  They have fleeting moments of extreme independence.

Since their birthdays in August, I’ve noticed that sometimes they play happily without me.  They play pretty well with each other, but sometimes they take off in different directions.  I’m still shocked when my two-year-old will go upstairs by himself to play with the GeoTrax.  He is actually being good.  By himself!

This is the best Christmas present that this mama can get: pockets of free time.  I still have plenty to do, including the dishes, laundry, and write my column, but it’s wonderful to be able to write during the day when I’m not so tired instead of late at night.

Don’t get me wrong though.  These pockets of time last twenty minutes at most, and the boys still keep my hopping.  They fight, the two-year-old can be so fussy, and when I get time to myself, I’m frequently interrupted.

But I’m here to tell any parent with children younger than mine that it does happen!  It gets a little easier.  It took five long years, but it does happen.

It could also be that I’ve been more intentional about trying to relax.  I try not to spend every night at my computer, and I always end the day with a good book instead of staring at my to-do list.  Once a week I’m committing myself to movie night too.  This might not seem like much, but until a few weeks ago, I had not sat down to watch a movie for pleasure in years.

I found out that my husband has been doing his own thinking on how we could relax.  He surprised me by saying for Christmas he wanted to get us both a new pair of hiking boots.  Day hikes in the mountains were a frequent recreation of ours before we had kids, and now that the boys are a little older, he wants to start again and take the boys with us.

I jumped for joy.  Though I frequently take the boys out to parks, I sorely miss going hiking.  We’ll have to stick to easier trails for our young children, but it’ll be wonderful to make getting into nature with the family more of a habit.

So we got our boots, and today we did our first “hike” at Ft. Yargo.  (Aren’t we lucky that we live in Barrow County and have this treasure in our backyard?)  On our inaugural hike, I learned not to expect much.  The boys would rather throw rocks and clamshells into the water than actually move down the trail.  The two-year-old tires quickly, and they both need a good supply of snack food on hand.

But it didn’t damper my enthusiasm.  It’s just the beginning for this outdoorsy family.

I hope everyone reading this has a wonderful holiday.  No matter how you celebrate, I hope it’s a peaceful, happy time for you.  I hope there’s someone with you to snuggle up to on the cold evenings, and I hope you get some great gifts too.

December & Christmas Activities with Small Children

These are snowflakes that we made last year for the tree. I hung them up in the entrance way of our activity room. They make a pretty decoration.

A while back I wrote about my desire to make new family traditions for my family, and December seems like a great time to do that.  However, I have to admit, I have kept this December extremely simple and I’ve done nothing to intentionally start anything new.  This might also be laziness on my part too.  But right now with a 5 and 2 year old, it feels like an accomplishment to get our regular chores done let alone begin new projects!  So I haven’t stressed.  I’ve just done what I could do easily and what the boys were receptive to.

(However, part of the reason I haven’t had to do much is because my husband initiated a new goal for the family!  I’ll be writing about this in an upcoming post. You can read about that here!)

So let’s see.  What have we done?  We have done what we’ve always done…..

  • We decorated a Christmas tree.  And this year, my five-year-old put all the ornaments on by himself!  That was special.
  • We also put a small tree in the five-year-old’s room.  We’ve done this the last few years, so I think we can call it a tradition.
  • This should have been written up under my “November Activities” post, but in early November, I always help my son write a letter to Santa Claus. This year I forgot to put a stamp in the envelope, but if you put a stamp in the envelope and address it to “Santa Claus, North Pole,” you’ll probably get a reply like we did last year!!
  • My five-year-old and I decided to make puppets with some extra cardboard I found and popsicle sticks.  We drew pictures on the cardboard, cut them out, pasted a popsicle stick on the back, and voila! a puppet!  We made some for my little nephews, and then my son wanted to make some for his friends. (A proud mama moment!)
  • We have been reading our Christmas books.  (I keep all the seasonal books tucked away so that we can pull them out around the holidays and they seem like new.)
  • Yesterday I baked one batch of oatmeal raisin cookies with the five-year-old while the two-year-old was napping, and yep, that’s the extent of my baking for the holidays.
  • This week I’ll let my boys watch some Christmas specials on T.V. if they want to.  We own the Charlie Brown Christmas special.
  • We strung up frosted Os for the tree.  We also did this last year, so maybe we can call it a tradition.  Frosted Os (or some kind of generic version) are big and easy for a little one to hold and string!  (That is, if he’s willing to do it.)  (Also, word to the wise: do not put them low on the tree if you have a dog.  Also don’t leave them on the kid’s activity table while the dogs are in the house.)
  • For an easy craft, I cut out the shape of a Christmas tree out of green construction paper, and then I cut out different colored shapes such as a star and circles, squares, triangles & small rectangles to make ornaments.  (My intent was to help my 2yo learn his shapes, but the craft didn’t hold his attention for very long.)  I put all the shapes and bits of paper into a plastic bag with a glue stick and a few extra Christmas stickers, and I told my boys they could make a Christmas tree whenever they wanted. I wasn’t sure my five-year-old wanted to do it, but he finally asked for it today.

So that is what I have done this December. There’s also a few things I didn’t do:

A simple craft: cut out the shape of a tree and several different shapes to use as ornaments. Stickers are also fun to add.
  • We didn’t decorate the outside of our house.  (Except for a small wreath on the door.)
  • I didn’t send Christmas cards this year. (Needed to save time and money.)
  • We didn’t do a lot of baking. (Except for that one batch of oatmeal raisin cookies.)
  • We didn’t drive around looking at Christmas lights.  (This was a favorite tradition of mine growing up.)
  • I didn’t buy a lot of presents (don’t have the money anyway), make any presents (except for the easy puppets), or invite anyone over for a Christmas get-together.

My main goal this December was to just enjoy the time with my boys, husband and keep up with our daily routine because when I don’t do that, we can all get quite frazzled.  Like I said above, with a 5 and 2 year-old, it’s an accomplishment to get anything done, and routine is important to them.  As their mom, I have to be ready for their mood changes (which can be swift), illnesses or whims (“I don’t want to do a craft, Mommy!”)  I also want to honor daddy’s ideas for family outings while he’s home on winter break.  So, not overwhelming myself with extra chores or expectations is key to making me a good mother.  (At least, most of the time.)

Whether you celebrate Christmas, another holiday, or none at all, I hope this winter season is warm, happy and peaceful for you!  Please leave me a comment and tell me what celebrations or activities you are participating in this December.

Worthy Reads about Raising and Educating Boys

Since I have two boys, I cannot help but be interested in information to help me understand the unique needs of boys.  Below is a list of books and online resources that I have found, and I plan to add to this list as I find more.  I hope you’ll contribute to this by leaving me your recommendations in the comments section!  I know there is a lot more out there, but I haven’t had much time to research it.


The Wonder of Boys by Michael Gurian – I owned this book before I even got married!  I liked the first chapter, especially, because it describes the difference in brain development of boys and girls.  It’s fascinating.  At the time, I guess I needed some insight on understanding the opposite sex, but after I had two boys, I sat down and finished the whole book.  I highly recommend this to any parent who has a boy.

Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph – Recently I read Biddulph’s Secret of Happy Children, and now this book is sitting on my night stand ready to be opened.  I’ll be sure to review it once I’m finished.

Online Resources

Bloggin’ Bout Boys – Jennifer Fink’s blog has a treasure trove of information.  She should know since she has four boys.  And she has homeschooled them too!

Why Boys Fail – I haven’t read through Richard Whitmire’s blog yet, but it looks like a good source of information and I want to go back to it.

Building Strong Boys – Not Just Cute – This looks to be a promising series about boys, risk factors and the positive things they need.

Interesting Articles

Schools “relearning” how to teach boys – recent article on king5.com

Why Boys Are Failing in an Educational System Stacked Against Them – by Lori Day of the Huffington Post – Very good article. I especially like this quote: “Particularly relevant to this discussion is the theory of “natural learning,” which takes for granted that a learner is a whole person — a living system — and that every aspect of a person, boy or girl, contributes to his or her learning.”

Our boys are falling behind in education – 2010 op-ed in Denver Post

New Studies highlights needs of boys in K-12, Higher Education – article in Science Daily

The Truth About Girls and Boys – a 2006 article that offers a different point of view

Teaching boys to be men – Interesting article about a boy’s school in Kenyan newspaper.  The quote I found most provocative in the article: “Why boys? Though she knows she might sound unpopular, Purity believes that the girl child has been empowered at the expense of the boy.”

Teacher and dad Michael Reist urges retooled approach to raising boys in new book

Anything Boys Can Do…Biology may play only a minor role in the math gender gap: Scientific American

A Huge Gender Gap Persists In College Degrees, Do We Need A White House Council On Boys And Men? by Mark Perry

Boys falling behind girls in education, experts look for solutions by Bruce Lindsay for KSL.com-Utah

All-boys’ classes grow confidence, leadership by Tamara Shephard on InsideToronto.com

Who says raising boys is easier?  by LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor

Learning to live with ‘boy energy’ by Stephen Bede Scharper

Book boys can’t resist – the notebook.org

Thousands of boys’ at least four years behind in reading – telegraph.co.uk – I see articles similar to this one almost everyday.  Something is wrong with how kids are being taught to read!

How to Help Your Kinesthetic Learner Do Better in School – NannyPro.com

Educating Boys – ABC Sydney – Australian Broadcasting Corporation – Though this sounds like a good school, I don’t agree with the statement that boys are different because we nurture them differently. They are just different!  And we nurture each child according to his/her needs.

Why You Should Care About International Men’s Day – Blogging ‘Bout Boys

‘Girls’ better behaviour results in higher grades than boys’ – Education – Scotsman.com – This is an irritating article. Boys are no less well-behaved than girls. They (and some girls) have different needs, including the need for a better learning environment where they can move and do more hands-on activities! This article is from Scotland, but the expert quoted happens to be from a local university.

How to Help Boys – Blogging ‘Bout Boys

As I noted above, this is my attempt to start collecting resources on this topic.  I’ll be adding more as I find them, and I hope you’ll contribute by leaving your recommendations in the comments below.  Thank you!

Do you think there’s a difference between boys and girls and how they learn?  

My Definition of Child-led Learning

I feel it’s important for me to define “child-led learning” as it works for my family because I’m sure there are different variations of child-led learning in each family who choose this way of homeschooling.  (I think that’s great because every parent has to determine what works best for his or her child.)  Unfortunately, people hear the term “child-led learning” and often come up with their own judgment about it based on an arbitrary news report, article or a homeschool family they have met.  I think it’s wiser to hold off on our judgments until we know more about that family and the needs of the children.

For me, doing “child-led learning” means introducing my boys to a variety of ideas, subjects, books, places, classes, stories, and people.  I am a facilitator and mentor.  As we explore the world together, I’m going to observe what they love the most.  When they gain interest in a particular subject, I’m going to let them delve into it further, and I’m going to do everything I can to help them learn more about it until they are satisfied.  I expect some interests may peter out and others may be life-long passions.

I am going to make sure my children learn the basics: reading, language arts, math, science and social studies.  In fact, according to the law in Georgia (U.S.A.), I have to, but I do believe that each child may learn at a different pace.  I will nudge, but I will not push.  If I nudge I can tell whether or not my child is ready for a specific subject by his reaction to it.   I’m not going to force anything, and I’m not going to test (except when the state requires it).  If I can find ways of helping them learn difficult subjects, I’ll do that, but I think it’s useless to make a child learn something he or she isn’t ready for or doesn’t want to learn. 

I will also concentrate more on helping my children how to find answers to their questions, fostering their imaginations, and helping them learn how to manage daily life.  I’ll write more about this in future posts.

As an example of encouraging my son’s passions, I am currently working on a snake project with my five-year-old.  I am not interested in snakes, but he is, so I suggested we make a book about snakes.  He loved the idea.  Through this project, we are working on his research, writing and reading skills.  It’s also part of his science requirement.  If I can think of other ways to teach him basic skills through his love of snakes, I’ll do it.  For example, we might use a measuring tape to see what the length of a snake is.  In addition, (at my son’s request) snakes are always characters in our nightly stories.

As he gets older, I’m hoping he’ll be more in charge of deciding what his projects are and how we’ll complete them.

I should also mention that occasionally I will make my children do somethingThis goes back to my statement above when I said that I would introduce “my boys to a variety of books, places, classes, stories, and people.”  For example, the nature center we go to frequently is offering an after-Christmas mini-camp.  I know he will love this!  But when I asked him if wanted to go, he said “No.”  I know that he just doesn’t understand what a mini-camp is, so I decided that if we could get in, I’d make him try it.  Fortunately, after I took the time to explain what it was about more thoroughly, he wanted to go. If he tries it and hates it, we’ll reassess, but trying is a must.

There are other things that will be required of my boys like contributing to the care of the house and each other, but I hope to approach this in a manner so that they understand the value of it and want to do it.  I will write more about this in future posts as well.

What is your perceived definition of child-led learning?  Do you think it’s good or bad? 

Please stay tuned.  After the New Year I’ll be starting a series of posts about our homeschool mission, priorities, and how we do it on a daily basis.

What qualifications are required of parents who homeschool?

The law in Georgia states, “Parents or guardians may teach only their own children in the home study program, provided the teaching parent or guardian possesses at least a high school diploma or a general educational development (GED) equivalency diploma, but the parents or guardians may employ a tutor who holds a high school diploma or a general educational development diploma to teach such children.”

The law only requires a parent to possess a high school diploma or equivalent to homeschool their child, but I believe there are many other qualifications a parent needs to homeschool.  I’m not talking about higher education.  I’m talking about a commitment to their child and to fostering an environment of learning.

Above all, parents who homeschool should love learning.  It doesn’t matter how educated you are, but do you love to learn?  Are you willing to learn along with your child?  Explore the world of ideas and great thinkers?

Parents who don’t like to read are probably not going to foster the love of reading in their child.  Sometimes a child will have a natural propensity for learning, but I believe if given the right environment, all children will want to learn.

One of the best ways to get children to learn is to create an environment full of educational opportunities.  Leave books on the coffee table and children will want to open them.  Be willing to answer their incessant questions and teach them how to find answers.  They will keep asking more questions, and eventually they’ll start finding their own answers.

Parents who shrug off questions or the interests of their children because they are too tired or don’t think the child’s interest is worthy enough are doing a huge disservice to their children.  This is how children learn that what they think doesn’t matter.  They’ll resent learning what others think they should know, and soon they’ll hate learning altogether.

But follow your child’s interests, and it’ll lead you on a long journey that will take you everywhere you want your child to go and farther.  You’ll be able to motivate your child to read and write because he’ll see that by learning to read and write, he’ll be able to do what he loves better! (You don’t have to homeschool to do this either!)

Besides learning alongside your child, you’ll need to take time to research the various options available to homeschoolers.  There are all sorts of teaching methods, and no one method works for everybody.

In addition, parents should learn about their child’s particular learning style.  This will help you tremendously as you decide what approach to homeschooling you want to take.  Discover Your Child’s Learning Style by Mariaemma Willis and Victoria Kindle Hodson or similar text is a must-read for all parents.

Homeschooling comes with its own sacrifices.  Though it doesn’t have to cost a fortune, most families who homeschool live on one income.  However, some parents manage to both work, and there are single parents who homeschool too, but whatever your situation, it will certainly be a sacrifice on your time.

Every mother knows that her free time diminishes with each child she has, but homeschooling mothers, especially, get little free time.  It can be frustrating and exhausting, especially if you don’t have a good support network of friends and family.

Depending on where you live, you may have to drive to find other homeschoolers or activities and classes to join.  Homeschooling parents have to be willing to get out there and meet other families and children so that their kids can socialize.  This can be easier said than done, but fortunately there are more and more opportunities for homeschoolers to get together.

Just like parenting in general, homeschooling parents need to be flexible and willing to change if their approach isn’t working.  They need to listen to their child and the needs of the whole family.  If you are a controlling person with an inflexible agenda, you will have a tough time homeschooling.

Helen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, said, “Children require guidance and sympathy far more than instruction.”  Parents of homeschoolers will succeed if they are willing to guide their children on a path of life-long learning.

Note: This column was first published in the The Barrow Journal on December 14, 2011.

What qualifications do you think homeschooling parents need to possess?