Last night, I did the dishes, all the dishes, not just the sharp knives and breakable hand washables, for the first time this summer. So we made it not quite a month with the kids taking on the daily responsibility for the dishes.

The kids were tired, watching a movie, and one of them had a friend over for the night. I didn’t want to push them to work when they were comfortably watching a movie with their friends.

I felt guilty interfering with their evening relaxation and taking time away from their friends.

Hmm, what is wrong with this picture? I fear I have been contributing more to our growing nation of indulged children than I thought. Time to step back again and let them have the kitchen, while I settle on the couch with a good book.

Personal Responsibility

Regular readers will know that I’m pushing the kids this summer to develop some new, powerful, personal habits. This push has dovetailed nicely with my increasing awareness that like many US children, mine are not contributing much to the ongoing running and maintenance of the household and are failing to become self-reliant.

Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker, suggests that the current generation of US children are perhaps the most dependent and indulged in the history of the world. This topic fascinates and worries me on both a personal level and a societal level. How effective will our kids be in their 20s, 30s and beyond? Will they be the capable, thinking adults that our country will need to get through the 21st Century? While we are striving hard to provide our children with an easy and worry-free childhood, we are bequeathing them a world with crumbling infrastructure, global warming, economic issues, and food pressures that will be anything but cushy. Our kids need to be ready to take on the adult challenges of their generation.

Well, first steps first. This summer in our house the kids are taking care of themselves, their rooms, and some of the basics around the house.  Each of them has personal, daily chores and there are also daily and weekly family chores. They are not being paid for the chores. They do not receive allowances. I am trying to get the idea across that money does not magically appear because they made their beds or did the dishes. That isn’t the way the real world works. The work that must be done to keep a household running is not work that they, or anyone else in the house, gets paid to do. I am also not assigning the family chores — allowing them the opportunity to step up and do what needs to be done without being told. When they have done a family chore they get to sign their name on the chart. (Anyone whose name does not appear with enough frequency will have consequences.)

So far, with reminders from me, most things are getting done. Hopefully by the end of summer they will be more proactive.





Creating Powerful Habits, part 2

Knowing we have a responsibility to help our kids develop good habits begs the question, which good habits?

The list of habits we can instill runs the gamut from regular toothbrushing to standing to the side when the elevator first opens. It is impossible for us to foster all good habits so we much choose the most effective ones that will have the greatest impact.

According to Paul O’Neill of Alcoa and others in Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, in businesses there are certain keystone habits that can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits can work the same in individuals. So which habits are keystone habits?

Keystone habits that research has shown trigger other good habits include:

  • regular exercise
  • eating dinner together as a family
  • making your bed every morning
  • eating breakfast

The above master habits can help people eat better, become more productive, show more patience, use credit cards less frequently, feel less stressed, have greater emotional control, and more confidence.

I’m betting to the above list we can add a few more such as:

  • wearing sunscreen daily
  • a behavioral pattern for handling and working through frustration and problem solving
  • looking people in eye when talking to them
  • maintaining an organized work area
  • a habitual system for working on and tracking long-term projects as daily or weekly activities

What other important habits should we help our kids develop and how can we do so?



Getting bumped back

Today the 7-year-old is in tears again, or is it still? Aleks and Khan Academy are bumping him back because he hasn’t fully learned the latest subjects and concepts. His angst is wearing on me. I’m learning that the most important thing I have to teach him is how to struggle. How to work when he is confused and not the confident expert.

He is bright enough that he easily understands many things effortlessly. He is used to feeling smart and in control. Feeling stupid takes a huge emotional toil on him.

I am convinced that being able to feel comfortable and be okay with the gnawing feeling of stupidity is essential for all real progress in the world, both individual progress and institutional progress. If we already know all the answers, we aren’t really moving forward. In order to move forward we must first start by understanding where our knowledge ends and our lack of knowledge (or stupidity) begins. All great mathematicians encounter difficult problems where they may not even know how to begin to solve the problem. Feeling stupid in scientific research fields is common enough that it can carry with it something called impostor syndrome where a person is unable to believe the external evidence of their own competence and accomplishments.

So how do we make it okay to feel stupid?  How do we make the feeling of stupidity something that inspires us to dig deeper for answers and solutions rather than something that makes us quit and walk away? It is our lack of self-confidence and self-esteem makes us want to quit (or cry) when we feel stupid. We don’t think we can work through the difficult problem and we don’t want to bruise our fragile egos by trying and possibly failing.

Much has been written on the importance of self-esteem in kids and how to build it. Much of it has been wrong. When I was growing up, I Am Loveable and Capable was used in both Sunday school and my public school as a way to build community and feelings of self-esteem. Even as a 4th grader I saw its stupidity. It taught that our egos are and should be damaged by the random and not so random acts of others. That our feeling of self worth can only be controlled by what happens to us, not by our own thoughts and actions.

New research is starting to show that self-esteem needs to be tempered by self-control, self-regulation, and yes, the ability to confidently keep struggling and working even when success isn’t immediate. We develop self-confidence not from avoiding failure but from learning that we are capable of surviving failure. We need to bring back scoring of pee wee soccer games and letter grades in elementary schools. We need to eliminate the stupid practice of giving all kids awards and trophies just for being on a team for an entire season. We parents need to back off and let our kids fail. When we act as helicopter parents and work with the coaches and teachers to prevent our kids from feeling the sting of failure, we give our kids the not so subtile message that we lack confidence in them. That we don’t think they can handle failure. Instead we need to let them realize that perhaps they weren’t quite as good as the other kid. That maybe they didn’t know quite as much as was expected for the class or test. And as they are feeling the let down of that failure we need to help them understand that failing isn’t the end of the world. That how they react to the failure will have a longer lasting effect than the failure itself. That they can and should work harder to do better and move through and beyond feeling stupid. Our kids need to learn that in feeling stupid and in failing they have great company.


Recently I switched my seven-year-old from a regular elementary school first grade class to homeschooling. We are using a combination of online learning, textbooks, regular books, videos, and museum visits for course materials.

For now the main online material he is using is the math program ALEKS. My older children also use ALEKS and have for the last 3 years. It offers a fairly comprehensive set of K-12 math courses. Students are fed problems and given assessments at their own pace. Their ability to progress is entirely dependent on how well they perform. At times they have completed an entire year’s lesson in just a couple days. Other times, when the math level contained concepts they had not previously encountered, their progress slowed to covering one grade level over the course of a calendar year.

How a student approaches ALEKS gives some interesting insights into their comfort and ability with basic problem solving. Not math problem solving, life problem solving. What do you do when you don’t know the answer, when you aren’t even sure how to find the answer? Do you stare at it? Look for additional resources? Ask someone? Bang your head against a wall? Take notes and write down detailed steps? Quit?

When ALEKS introduces a new topic it starts by showing a problem. If the student knows the answer to the problem they have the ability to answer that problem, answer a few more similar problems correctly and then move on to the next topic. This prevents students from spending endless hours working problems within their current level of knowledge.

Where it gets interesting is if a student does not already understand a topic. They have the option of clicking ‘Explain’ which brings up a text and diagram description of the problem and its solution. Some students do not even want to click on ‘Explain’ because they don’t want to fail the problem or they are uncomfortable showing their ignorance, even to a computer. If they do click ‘Explain’ they may not understand the explanation. While sometime the explanation is confusing, other times it seems that the students are just not very good at walking themselves through the explanation, step-by-step.

Working with my young student today it became clear that he is not used to taking the time to work through explanations and untangle problems on his own. He doesn’t like to click ‘Explain’ and when he does, he has a tendency to skim read the explanation and then declare, “I don’t get it. I can’t do it.”

Thus far in his education he has had the luxury of having subjects and concepts clearly explained to him by his teachers. He has been given clear and detailed directions. He has been able to easily and correctly complete assignments by just going through the motions. He has not had to puzzle over concepts. He has been given problems with distinct answers: true/false, multiple choice, fill in the blanks from the above lists of words. If it became difficult or he didn’t understand he could always ask for help or just quit. His ability to easily understand teachers’ explanations combined with the “one right answer” syndrome has made him into a lazy learner. I don’t think he is alone in this. The current test mania environment within the public schools emphasizes knowing the right answer, not knowing how to think and problem solve. Hopefully homeschooling will help him become more comfortable in the space between knowing and not yet knowing. Especially in the 21st century, knowing how to find answers and all their nuances is at least as important as knowing today’s correct answer. Explain.