The Unexpected Dividends of PC Gaming

I do not enjoy video games. Like, at all. So, when my gamer husband bought a gaming console when our son was just around seven or eight, I was a little eye-rolly. But they really enjoyed playing games together, and if Lego Star Wars was going to be their version of playing catch out in the yard, I really couldn’t find any fault with that.  Himself got older, his sister started playing, too. It was a family affair, and if I didn’t want to join in, that was my loss, really. It was all sunshine and daisies until Himself was about 10, when Xbox live came along.

Don’t get me wrong—online gaming has its perks, not the least of which is the fact that I’m very happy to not have other people’s kids in my house, especially when I’m working. But the advent of online gaming on the Xbox meant that inviting friends over to share or swap games was a thing of the past. Now, you needed not only to own a console, you had to own the same console as your friends. You had to buy a copy of the game, and every friend that you wanted to play with had to buy it too—at $50 to $60 a pop. Oh, and you had to pay for an X-Box Live membership, too. Suddenly, there was intense peer pressure to buy THE new game the moment it came out, and play it online with your friends. When Call of Duty: Black Ops launched to an insane amount of fanfare in November 2010, I officially lost my shit. It was weeks spent arguing with a 10 year old about why I was not buying this game. He didn’t even really want the game. The problem was, apparently every other child in America got this incredibly violent first person shooter on the day it came out. I mean, even if I were willing to let the kid play it, WTF was with all these parents giving their kid a $60 game SIX WEEKS BEFORE CHRISTMAS? He kept getting online to find that all his friends were deeply involved in Black Ops. He felt left out. Sorry dude. Sucks to be you.

But then, they discovered PC games. Starting with Minecraft and gradually moving on to other indie games, all three of my gamers slowly started drifting away from the gaming console and toward the two Macs we had in the house. When the Xbox Live membership expired in 2012, I gave them the ultimatum: You must choose between PC games and the Xbox. They chose the PC.

The only complaint was that, per my son, the Mac wasn’t really the best option for gaming (I have no idea why. He probably told me, but, as noted, I am incredibly disinterested in video games). But my husband, having read countless “how to” posts on Lifehacker and Gizmodo, had been itching to build a PC for a while. He soon followed up on all the posts he’d bookmarked about it, and set to work. With about $700 in parts and software plus some repurposed components—along with a lot of cursing and sweat–he (with “help” from my son) put together a superfast, superslick gaming computer that he’s able to upgrade as needed.

It was worth every single penny. Here’s why.

  1. Better value.  First off, access to Xbox Live was, at the time, about $100 a year, in addition for what we were already paying for Internet service. And while building the machine cost more than what an Xbox would have, it is more powerful, and it’s upgradable, so it will last a long time. Plus, it’s also, you know, a computer.  The kids and the spouse use it to everything one might do on a computer, from reading the news to doing homework, and I got to kick them all off my Mac forever. In addition, individual games are usually cheaper on PC, and there are some really good sales and giveaways on gaming sites like Steam. Which leads us to…
  2. It’s taught my son to handle money. When he turned 13, we set Himself up with his own student PayPal account, so he doesn’t have to use my credit cards or PayPal to buy games. Between his little allowance, which is deposited to his PayPal every payday (a surprise reward for keeping his room neat and making his chores a regular habit), the occasional cast gift, and the ability to easily sell back games had finished for credit on Steam, he manages his spending pretty much on his own.
  3. It made him more generous. Even better: it’s so easy and cheap to buy games  for the PC  that now,  when he sees a game he likes on sale, he’ll buy it for himself and gift it to someone else—his sister, his cousin (who does the same for him), or a friend–so they can play together. For a kid who hates to shop, and is from a family that is not a big gift-giving family, this is a pretty pleasant surprise.
  4. Reading. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, lots of video games provide text-rich experiences. Both of my kids’ decoding skills grew more advanced as they got involved with gaming, and especially text chatting online during games. As this article from Wired explains, games like Minecraft don’t include instructions, but are “surrounded by a culture of literacy” that sends kids digging through websites and wikis for tips and walkthroughs. Many of these resources are text based, written at high levels…. but young readers dive in because they are highly motivated.
  5. Typing. My son’s terrible handwriting slows him down on tests, makes him lazy about writing. But man, can he type. He’s as fast as me now, and almost as accurate. My daughter, who is now finishing up sixth grade, is even faster. I wouldn’t think this was such a big deal, but teachers at my kids’ school are telling me it is—that they are starting to move toward more work being submitted online, but many, many of the kids are being held back by poor typing skills. They don’t learn to type by clicking a game controller, swiping an iPad, or playing games on the phone with their thumbs.
  6. It’s demented and sad, but social.  Most kids game on consoles, which limits the number of real-world friends my PC gamers can interact with online. But this tinier niche has yielded strong bonds for kids who don’t like to socialize in large groups. They’ve both stayed connected with friends who have moved away; they’ve developed friendships with with friends-of-friends who go to different schools, and with friends they’ve made online. Gaming provides a social circle for teenagers who are not particularly interested in “hanging out,” a term that tends to translate into “getting into trouble,” at least in my neck of the woods.
  7. They like being different. My son talks about indie games the way I talked about indie rock in the 1990s: like he’s part of a special tribe of rebels who have eschewed the mainstream for something that is more specialized and innovative.  He’s got a bit of that hipster “I liked it before it was cool” thing going on (his version is, “I played it when it was still in Beta”), and that’s just fine with this GenX parent.
  8. It’s a family thing.  Gaming also offers a shared interest for my two kids, who are three years and one X/Y chromosome apart. They don’t play together all the time, but they play together often enough. When they’re not playing, they talk to each other in gamespeak and chat about gaming celebrities they follow on YouTube (apparently, that’s a thing). Himself also plays almost daily with his cousin, who lives a hour and about $20 in bridge tolls away. My sister and I listen to their constant chatting, and it’s like she and her family live right next door.
  9. Big brother looks out for little sister online. He makes sure she’s not doing anything inappropriate, that she’s not being treated badly—or treating others badly. Some of this could have happened on the Xbox, of course, but the fact that they are on separate machines in the same room means that he’s keeping an eye on her even when she’s not playing the same game as him.
  10. Less clutter. Oh, it always comes down to this with me. No plastic boxes! No game discs (you know, part of me still wants to call them “cartridges”) to put back in those plastic boxes!. No controllers on the coffee table, no wires, no batteries for controllers–nothing to put away, organize, or tidy. It’s bliss.

While I don’t like games myself and I’m always struggling to find the sweet spot for the “right” amount of time to spend glued to the computer, I can’t say I’d ever ban games altogether. I have my little list that forces both kids to do their homework, explore other things, and get out of doors occasionally, and be productive around the house. Are they spending too much time on the computer? Probably. But they’re still good kids and thus far are developing into good young adults. I can’t complain about that.

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How We Turned a Reluctant Reader Into a Habitual Reader (Or: I Lied on My Kid’s Reading Log and the World Didn’t End)

My son is a reader.  He likes books. He reads plenty.

But: He is not a voracious reader. He’s not one of those kids who gobble books up like Pac-Man chasing down dots. He doesn’t romanticize, Hermione-style, over the smell of ink on paper, nor does he have any desire to browse aisles at bookstores, read through reviews, or sit in on a book discussion. He prefers real paper books, but has no attachment to them as objects once he’s read them (I suspect  I’ve had some influence here, with my constant reminders to purge stuff, and my own “books are not bricks” mantra). He wasn’t an early reader by any stretch: He learned to read in school, not at home. And while he was read to plenty as a baby (he was the first child, after all), he never had any particular inclination to gravitate toward books on his own. He was behind the curve in reading in the early grades, and getting him to finish a book was a chore. And yet, now, at fifteen, he is a reader.

I often detail this evolution with book-loving friends who worry that their young children don’t read as well, as independently, or as much as they want them to. What I found with my guy is that while he never felt any intimate connection with books, he LOVED stories. Big stories. Sweeping stories. Huge, epic stories where you really get invested in characters and there’s a solid chance things might not end well. The thing is, books for very young readers are usually pretty benign. Once Himself got into the third in the Magic Treehouse series and realized that Jack and Annie were probably going to escape any real danger (how else would they get to book 4, 5… 25?) he completely lost interest.

Twenty-eight volumes to go!
I don’t think the protagonists have anything to worry about.

The thing is, at seven or eight years old, he just didn’t have the decoding skills to read more complicated stories yet. So, for most of second, third, and even into fourth grade, his independent reading pretty much consisted of me leaning over his shoulder to make sure he read X number of pages, or more often, me just lying on his class reading log and saying that yeah, he’d read for 15 minutes (I’m not ashamed).

But while he was faking reading, he was really, really into stories. Mostly movies at that age—Toy Story and all things Pixar were in a constant cycle of watch/rewind/watch again.

At my husband’s insistence, we had strategically hidden everything Star Wars related from him until he was seven years old—the age my husband had been when the first film came out—and then launched it with great fanfare. (It goes without saying that Episode IV comes first.) It was well worth the wait, because at seven, he was mature enough to really understand the humor, the humanity, and the eternal struggle with good and evil—along with the awesome light saber duels, droid banter, and space battles. Rather than getting caught up in hitting people with light sabers disguised as sticks (as I’d seen so many toddlers who got initiated too young do), Himself latched onto the Hero’s Journey theme of the tale. He was enamored of Darth Vader, blasters, and light sabers, of course… but still more concerned with Luke and the good guys ultimately defeating evil. We invested in some great Star Wars like books this one (which he paged through endlessly, looking at pictures over and over, until the spine finally split), but his dad’s 1970s original Han Solo paperbacks didn’t tempt him at all.

The #1 Christmas gift of 2007 at my house. 

We talked about Star Wars endlessly (something my husband and I liked to do long before we’d ever had kids). We did the same thing with the Lord of the Rings films, and Harry Potter, the latter of which we listened to on audio in addition to watching the films. Doctor Who became a ritual, as did parsing each episode and theorizing about what might come next.

We found stories elsewhere that grabbed his attention, and unexpectedly challenged him to not merely enjoy a narrative, but to read.  We binge watched Lost, and found that one key storyline was told entirely in subtitles. which we had to read aloud for him… until we didn’t anymore. As someone who does not enjoy video games at all, it took me a while to realize the long-form RPGs he was playing with his dad were yet another form of storytelling—and that they were actually really text-rich experiences that challenged him to read constantly, as bubbles popped up on screen and demanded he decode, understand, and respond quickly (ETA: Added bonus: he also learned to type as fast as Mad Men–era secretary).  By fifth grade, with the help of all those video games and subtitles (and you know, I’m sure school helped) his reading skills were catching up to those of his peers.

Once he was hooked on stories, we needed to step in our role as his supplier. I had a conversation with our local librarian about how I was having difficulty getting him to commit longer novels. When I told her really gravitated life-or-death epics, she excitedly handed me Gregor the Overlander, the first in Suzanne Collins’ fabulous and somewhat overlooked Underland Chonicles. My ‘reluctant reader’ banged through the entire five-book series in a couple of weeks. When he finished the last one, he cried for a day or two, just because he was so sad it was over.

It’s still his favorite book.

He had become a reader. He still is one.

But I don’t know if he’d be a reader we hadn’t actively worked to make him one. The key had not just been encouraging him to read, or reading to him, but finding books he would want to read, and then reading them with him (my husband and I both read Gregor as well). He wasn’t born a reader, but proper care and feeding, he grew into one.

So, if you’re worried that  your young one is not a reader, don’t. Just be patient, and enjoy some stories with him while his skills catch up to his interests. I sincerely believe that the best way to get a kid reading is just to unleash your own inner geek and nerd out with your kids. Indulge in stories—across all sorts of media—together:

  • Watch an epic film together.
  • Find an appointment-viewing style show to watch together each week, and then discuss it, water cooler-style, over dinner or while driving in the car.
  • Treat yourself to great graphic novels, and share them with your child.
  • Have him or her explain the plot of a favorite video game to you.
  • Download an excellent audiobook and listen together.
(Image: Library of Congress)

(Image: Library of Congress)

Audiobooks; Not just for the car. 

Once a kid becomes a story addict, he’ll start jonesing for the harder stuff. He’ll take on longer, more difficult narratives, and gradually his reading skills will catch up with his appetite. Keep on putting really good books in front of  him, show him that you think they’re worth reading yourself, and limit competition from other, shinier interest for just a little bit of time each day.

With a little legwork, you can make books just as accessible, convenient, addicting, and social as the Internet. And books can become as much of a habit as video games are. Also, free from your local library, and totally portable.

Why isn’t everyone watching SyFy’s Face Off?

I talk a lot about getting the kids to read more books, and spend less time with screens. But the truth is that for my family, some TV time is quality screen time. When you’ve got a show that you all enjoy, it’s like you’ve got a weekly date to all get on the couch, Simpsons-style, and experience something together. For us, that show is SyFy’s super fun competition show, Face Off.

If you haven’t tuned in, think Project Runway, but substitute special effects make-up for fashion. Each season, the show culls a group of special effects artists who are trying to break into the industry, and puts them through a series of deadline-driven challenges. As on Runway, the artists are mentored by a knowledgeable industry insider, and judged by professionals who could make or break their careers. Each week, someone gets crowned a winner (and in some cases, is offered immunity for the following week) and someone else is sent home. Like Runway, Face-off offers viewers a glimpse at how things are made, and  in particular, how creative people merge artistic vision with technical skill to make beautiful things.

But thats where the similarities end. Because while the format resembles that of runway, the content is on another level entirely.

My daughter and I (and occasionally our menfolk) used to watch Runway pretty religiously. We are not particularly interested in fashion, but we really loved seeing the process behind making clothing. But as the seasons wore on we grew tired of it. Each season (and especially after the show moved to Lifetime and grew to 90 minutes) there seemed to be less time spent showing people actually making stuff, and more time devoted to interpersonal drama. And ugh, the drama. Each group of designers was more predictable than the last, with contestants clearly casting themselves (or being cast by the show’s editors) into specific roles: they bitchy one, the underdog, etc. While some competitors did prove to be nice ladies and guys, the competition was fierce, in both the literal and Christian Siriano sense of the word: backstabbing, smack-talking, shameless self-promotion, and passive-aggressive criticism of one another seem to rule the day on Runway. Making matters worse, the judging was just infuriating. When Anya’s was crowned winner in Season 9 over Victor (a win that seemed largely pre-ordained by the producers), we thew up our collective hands and tapped out. Clearly, we do not understand fashion. (As the judges might say, I’m just not their girl).

But movies? Movies we get, and Face Off offers a real glimpse into the part of movie making that most of us rarely think about. Unlike the drama-driven bitchfest that Project Runway has become, Face Off presents friendly competition in a largely collaborative atmosphere. The artists showcased on Face Off are not just talented. They also demonstrate the kind of behaviors that anyone who ever wants to work in a creative industry should emulate.  Contestants help one another out all the time, not just on team challenges, but also on individual challenges when their own hides are on the line. On the rare occasion when someone shows up with a chip on their shoulder, they usually don’t last long. The artists turn to one another for advice all the time, and when mentor Michael Westmore shows up in the workshop, they listen to his notes with respect that borders on reverence. The mood continues on the reveal stage, where the judges offer constructive criticisms and encouragement rather than snappy, Michael Kors–style one liners. Contrary to what the producers at most reality competition shows think, really fun to watch a show with your kid where you don’t hate any contestant. In fact, by the time you get down to the top five or six, you kind of want them all to win.

In a sense, they all do. The judges on this show—all major players in the special effects industry–seem to use the show as a proving ground for scouting new talent. So even if only one winner gets to claim the prize, a strong showing by a losing contestant is more likely to get a foot in the door than any backstabbing or scheming would. In any event, I get the sense that there is just no room for divas in this industry. Judges Glenn Hetrick, Ve Neill,  and Neville Page (and in earlier seasons, Patrick Tatopoulos) are among the biggest names in the field, but they are still far from household names. So winners are not competing for fame so much as for chance to get noticed by people who can put them in a position to work for a living.

It makes for great tv that is fun to watch together. For kids (or anyone who has ever watched a movie), it shows just how much work goes into old fashioned special effects, and highlights the importance of time management, teamwork, and thinking creatively. For the family, it not only provides appointment television to share at a time when our kids are less interested in spending time with their parents, but it has given us more of an appreciation for the work that goes into the movies and tv we otherwise enjoy (and we’ve all started doing Glenn Hetrick impressions, noting “this-is-a-very-effective-make-up” whenever a monster or even just an injured patient shows up in the course of a TV show).

Season 8 premiers tonight, with past winners serving as mentors to  new contestants (and all seasons are streaming now at Syfy.com). Let the friendly competition, thoughtful critiques, and teamwork begin!

The Momentum Optimization Project: Sometimes, an object needs to rest.

I started this post four months ago.

I can explain.

It was a busy summer and early fall, consumed by a large project that was running late. I was, for the most part, waking up every single morning to tend to manuscript bits and bobs, and trying to finish up early enough to do some actual summertime parenting in the late afternoons (first world problem alert: I do realize that spending time at the beach is a weird factor in the “busy” equation–but it is something that competes with time spent cleaning house or working on paid projects). Anyway, by the end of September, when I started this post, I was in the endzone on that project, and the next year’s projects were just starting to peek through the snow, so to speak. Essentially, I was heading into a work lull.

I should have been proactive. I know. Really. I tried to be. I made plans to get ahead—to jump in with both feet on next year’s work, and oh yeah, while it wasn’t too busy, to go ahead and write a ton of content for this blog that I could have just sitting on my computer, ready to post for all my loyal readers (hello, friends and family!) at a leisurely pace. I would get all that holiday shopping done early, work the sales. I would learn to sew and reupholster my couch.

None of this happened. I did, however, trudge down to my basement lair daily and prepare to work. I sat at the desk. I opened the books. I looked at the manuscript, but didn’t really edit much. I watched course videos and read news articles related to a new discipline I’m working in. I started mulling, and researching, different directions in which I might take my career. I began researching ideas for a new project to develop on my own. Realizing that I probably needed to update my resume, I looked at some colleagues’ for ideas on how I might do it. Essentially, I fussed about on the edges of work–but didn’t get any substantial work done.

I was distracted even from my distractions. I spent countless hours window shopping but didn’t purchase any Christmas gifts until about a week before Christmas (thank you, Amazon.com). I started several blog posts, but they were shite and just festered in my WordPress drafts folder, underdeveloped and unfinished. I served jury duty. I cleaned the house. I weeded the closets and the pantry and more. I spent hours clicking through Pinterest and Apartment Therapy looking for solutions for troublesome areas of my house, but made little progress because I wasn’t really “working” and thus could not really justify spending money on said projects. I bought a sewing machine that I have no idea how to use. I researched ways to help my kids with schoolwork, looking for a better understanding of the challenges (and opportunities) of the common core, and investigating ways to help them build better study skills. I found a ton of books for my kids to read and ordered them from the library. Ironically, I spent a lot reading blogs and articles about procrastination and productivity.

This happens every year. The Spousal Unit refers to it as my Seasonal Affective Funk. It’s partly that–I am pretty much solar powered, and so the dark days do take a toll. But a peek at my billing history, which provides a fair accounting of how productive I really am every week of the year, reveals that I usually slow down in late fall and then pick up just after the new year, when the days are at their darkest. It happens, quite simply, when I put one project to bed after working on it for the better part of a year. There’s a cycle in textbook publishing, and that’s the lull. It’s when, per Newton’s Law of Personal Momentum, I am abruptly transformed from an Object in Motion to an Object at Rest. Because if I don’t have a LOT of stuff to do? I’m not going to do a lot of stuff.

The irony here, of course, is that I’ve spent a great deal of time here talking about how I magically transformed my kids’ habits by just making a list and sticking to it. But no amount of list making seems to snap me out of this annual funk (although I suspect there might be some drugs that could help). Yes, I sat at my desk and pretended to work. I might as well have been playing video games.

But not really.

A long time ago, during another autumnal work funk, I stumbled upon this fabulous post extolling the virtues of structured procrastination. We procrasinators aren’t doing nothing; we’re just putting off important things to tend to “marginally useful things.” Why beat ourselves up over it? Even the less pressing things on the to-do list need to get done. For example, I’d been ignoring the clutter in my house for months while I was very busy–I needed to catch up on that, and now my closets are quite a bit less cluttered. I absolutely needed to spend some time looking at resumes, as my industry is changing profoundly in the digital age, and my lone promotional document was clearly written in 2001. And while I haven’t quite gotten around to reupholstering the couch, I did tag some solid directions for creating summer slipcovers out of bleached dropcloths, and set a goal to learn to use the machine well enough to pull it off by next summer. Pressing issues? Maybe not, but I am I’m fairly certain they’ll cumulatively improve my house, my work, the kids’ schoolwork, and my mindset moving forward. But you know, at the end of the day personal growth won’t pay the bills.

No matter. There comes a point when the procrastinator can procrastinate no more. Come the first week of January, when the kids go back to school and I crack open my new desk diary, I always hit the ground running. And here I am, at the end of my first full week of 2015, and I have billed a solid week’s worth of work, tended to some PTA stuff, and I’m fairly confident that I’ll be finishing this blog post today.

Anyway, welcome to 2015. Nap time is over.

Reversing the Polarity of Convenience Food: Be a junk food locavore

I will make no apologies: I enjoy junk food. Cookies, packaged and laden with sugar and/or salt?  Bring it on.

Just don’t leave it where I can see it. Seriously. An open sleeve of cookies left out on the counter is not just a temptation for me: It’s an invitation–no, it’s an order–to mindlessly stick one in my pie hole every time I walk into the kitchen. One cookie? Pretty harmless. But I work at home. I walk through the kitchen a lot.

I know there’s some gray area in terms of what’s junk and what’s not. But for my purposes, I’m thinking of anything highly processed, laden with chemicals, and labeled with an ingredients list that is as long as the Magna Carta. I had little of it in my house before I had kids; and even when my kids were small, I didn’t keep it in the house. But when we moved to our block, which is full of kids running in and out, some of them complaining that I had nothing for them to eat, I got in the habit of keeping snacks in the house: cookies, bags of sugar water passing as fruit “drink,” boxes of Kraft Mac & Cheese that I could toss on the stove and feed a brood on the fly. Boxes, and boxes of junk came into my house every time I headed to the warehouse store: It was easy. It was cheap. It was convenient.

I’ll not bore you with the details other than to say they involved a healthy-seeming husband teetering toward Type 2 diabetes, a mid-lifing self putting on 20 pounds in two years, and a pair of scrawny children who loved ate plenty of junk food and not enough real, actual food. Junk, from purchase to consumption, had just become a habit an our house. I don’t know that banning junk is the answer–sometimes we need something easy, cheap, and convenient (and in any event, I don’t believe in really “banning” anything), but clearly, it was too easy, too cheap,  too convenient.  And since I’m the one tasked with the food shopping, I was the enabler-in-chief.

So I made an executive decision: I stopped buying it. Can they eat it? Sure. But it’s not part of my food budget nor does it have space in my cabinets. If they want something junky, they can walk to the deli and buy it for themselves, or just bake some brownies. The point was not to make junk and sweets completely off limits, it was just to make them a little more difficult, more expensive, less convenient. Here’s how it works out:

  • Want a cookie? Walk to the store and buy some. With your own money.
  • Want a snack? See what’s in the fridge. There’s leftovers. There’s cheese. There’s cold cuts, There’s bread in the drawer, peanut butter in the cupboard.
  • Want dessert tonight? There is brownie mix in the cabinet. Hop to it.
  • Want mac & cheese? We replaced the box o’ crap with a simple variation we invented based on one of their favorite dinners that they’ve learned to make for themselves. It’s just as easy as boxed mac and cheese, and consists of just a real food ingredients that we always have in the house.
  • Soda was never allowed in our house, but they’re allowed to have it when we’re out, and on pizza night.
  • I keep ice cream in the freezer, by the quart. It’s fattening and has sugar, yes, but it’s also relatively wholesome (we avoid anything with weird ingredients) and fixing yourself a bowl requires a bit of effort.

I recognize that this approach makes little economic sense. We are spending more money on each individual snack, after all. But at the same time, what money we spend is being spent at small neighborhood store, rather than at a big warehouse chain several miles away, so at least it’s good for the local economy. We’re junk food locavores!

And of course, it makes great sense on a health metric. I can’t say much about the kids–they’ve never had weight issues and are rarely sick, so I guess they could have gone on eating crap until midlife comes and bites them in the ass. But the two household members for whom that bite has already taken place have certainly seen some benefit. For us, a key has been to make healthy food just as easy to eat as junk. The husband has a yogurt and fruit habit every morning; I’ve learned that I’ll pick just as mindlessly at a bowl of blueberries or carrots or pickled cauliflower that’s been left on the counter as I will at a sleeve of Oreos, and I’ll feel fuller afterward, without the inevitable post-Oreo craving for more Oreos. And don’t even get me started on the joys of the pre-washed, bagged salad, which makes eating a bowl of vegetables (granted, occasionally with some processed dressing, but still) easier than driving through McDonalds.

 

 

The Homework Map: Charting their courses

Homework was never easy or enjoyable at our house. Honestly, I kind of resent having to have anything to do with it (I did my homework back in the 1980s, I should be done by now). But alas, I’ve come to peace with the fact that my kids are not necessarily self-starters, and require some degree of parenting to keep them on track. This is especially the case when it comes to getting homework done.

When the kids were little, at least the entire concept of homework was pretty straightforward: Here is a list of things to do. Now do them. All that changes in middle school, when suddenly the kids are faced with five or six different teachers, each with their own quirks and demands. It can be overwhelming for students, and exhausting for parents–especially if you’ve got more than one child.

We are lucky that the school my kids attend, which runs from 6th through 12th grade, requires teachers to provide homework sheets for each class, each week. It’s a huge help for students to have the teachers articulate the learning objectives and assignments very clearly, and leaves no room for excuses such as not writing it down, or in my son’s case, not being able to read what you wrote down.

Still, with five or six different teachers handing out just as many homework sheets, there’s just a lot to sort through. My kids are getting better at doing their work, but they’re still struggling with the executive function portion of the equation–that is, figuring out what they need to do, when, and how to prioritize lots of competing tasks and activities.

So, I’ve found that the best thing to do is for me to sit down at the beginning of each week and sort through all the assignment sheets and the family calendar and synthesize a weekly list for/with each of them. Making that weekly list into a visual chart is even better, allowing kids (and parents!) to clearly see what assignments are coming up, and spot potential roadblocks in advance, so the kids can address them with teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors long before deadlines start rearing their ugly heads.

Enter the Homework Map. It’s a simple chart, similar to a weekly planner but customized for school work.

 

Homework Map

You can buy a planner that does the job for them, but I’ve never found one that works perfectly. I find it easier (and cheaper) to just work with this simple MS-word document, which I print out and fill in in pencil. You can click on the links below for a pdf file that you can print out, or to download a Microsoft Word file that you can customize however you like.

The Homework Map [printable pdf]

The Homework Map [downloadable word file]

 

Here’s how to use it:

Use it with your homework sheets–not in place of them. Make a quick note of what needs to be done  in the cell for each subject. You don’t need to go into detail–just note the general gist of each assignment (for example, “Read and answer 5 questions”) and refer to homework sheets (or your teacher’s website or whatever) for specifics. If the kids don’t get assignments in advance, just have them fill it in as best you can as they move through the week. Oh, and start nagging your school to start posting the assignments to the web or via email. It’s 2014, for God’s sake.

Use the “what’s happening” section to track after school activities. Jobs, service commitments, family obligations (including babysitting younger siblings), sports or clubs may be competing for students’ time after school. Be sure to schedule in all of these commitments so kids can factor them in when planning their time. Seeing it all in one place will help them to visualize how how much time they really have to tend to homework, so they can adjust their schedule as needed.

Plan seven days–or even two weeks–ahead! If Monday to Friday are looking kind of busy, kids will see it–and may want to get ahead on next week’s assignments over the weekend. One of the reasons I hate most weekly planners is that they include only a tiny section for weekends. Students who do a lot of activities may want to use some weekend time to catch up or get ahead–so factor that into the map.

Set benchmarks for big projects.  If a student has a big project due on Friday, he or she can break it up into smaller tasks over the course of the week, and do a little each day. Setting firm benchmarks is a fantastic way to approach large projects. For example, rather than just writing “essay due friday,” take a few minutes to figure out individual steps and plot them on your map. For an essay with a deadline that’s a week away, your map might include daily benchmarks for researching, outlining, identifying evidence, writing the body, the intro, and the conclusion, and revising/finalizing the essay).

Busy day? Tweak the schedule. If a child sees that they’ve got a ton of homework on Wednesday, plus two hours of team practice after school, they might want to move some tasks from Wednesday to Tuesday, or talk to their coach about cutting out early if they have too much work to do.

Prioritize work vs. leisure. If a child sees that they’ve got a ton of homework, they should know that it’s not in their best interest to turn on the TV when you they home. Remember Newton’s Laws, and stick to the Momentum Optimization plan!

Schedule your fun time, too. On the other hand, if you KNOW your kid is going to want to watch the big game  (or in our case, this week’s  Face Off ) on a particular night, go ahead and put it on the map. That way, they’ll know they need to get their work done earlier in order to have it out of the way when prime time rolls around.

Make it a team effort. My goal isn’t to organize my kids’ lives for them–it’s to teach them to organize their own. I’ve learned with my son that sitting down with them and making the map, and then checking and adapting it each day as we move through the week makes the worse less daunting for him and less stressful for all of us. With my daughter starting middle school this year, I’m glad to have the system in place already and hope we can get her started on developing good habits right away.

 

Lesson from Hurricane Sandy, #4: Picky eaters are less picky when they’re really, truly hungry

I made a joke on Facebook the night before the storm hit, joking that (to paraphrase the Talking Heads), I had some groceries, some peanut butter, to last a couple of days. My family has been in this neighborhood a long time, and we knew that this block had never flooded (not even during Hurricane Donna), but we thought it was likely that we would get some water in the basement. So our plan was to ride out Sandy as we had ridden out every other hurricane–to stay close to home so we could man the sump pumps and the generator. Like most of our neighbors, we battened down the hatches and hunkered down, with candles and flashlights at the ready. I had groceries up on the high shelves in the basement, and the second fridge was well stocked with a few gallons of milk, some beer, and frozen food.

Of course, that was all in the basement. So, that didn’t quite work out like I’d hoped.

Food-wise, the first day or two after the storm were kind of hilarious, as we all emptied our pantries and thawing freezers (the ones we had up in our kitchens, that is) and fed anyone who was there to eat it. I introduced some of my neighbors to Irish sausage; my next-door neighbor ate a granola bar for the first time in his life. Perhaps the most surreal moment came when another neighbor came around with a tray of just-thawed shrimp cocktail, and we all stood in the cold, covered in basement sludge, feasting as though we were at a country club.

But as time went on, the whole sustenance thing became decidedly less entertaining. For the first few weeks after the storm, there was just a ton of work to do, and we were all burning every minute of daylight mucking out and cleaning up. There was still no power, no heat, no refrigerator, or hot water to wash dishes. I had two kids who were not particularly good at eating things that they weren’t used to eating. So, sorry kids–I’m not making you Kraft mac and cheese or rolling up plain turkey cold cuts today.

But guess what? Apparently, picky eaters become less picky and more adventurous when they’re really hungry and choices are limited. For weeks after the hurricane, we were living on canned goods and the kindness of strangers. When you’re hungry, things that might have smelled weird to you a week before suddenly smell delicious. My son still talks about the amazing Jamaican jerk chicken he ate, delivered from a church van that was just trolling through the streets, offering food and comfort. My daughter ate chili from a Red Cross truck (yes, they did eventually make an appearance) and everybody dug into a huge pot of jambalaya delivered by one of the local surfers. My kids have never been big in the appetite department and would have lived on nothing but milk if they could have. But now they were, probably for the first time ever, hungry enough to get past the novelty of new textures and flavors and realize that not only did they feel better after eating it, but they kind of liked it.

I guess the point is that when it comes to getting our kids to try new things, it doesn’t hurt to tell them there’s just nothing else to eat. The thing is, I didn’t really have to wait for a natural disaster for it to happen; I’ve found a similar phenomenon occurs in less dire circumstances. If I don’t pack junk and snacks when we go to the beach, they’ll get hungry enough to just try what’s offered. That’s how I got them to consider foods that they’d previously wrinkled their noses at: hummus, fish tacos, sweet potato fries, a frozen banana. So the moral of the story is, if you don’t let them have the junk, they’ll eat things that are not junk–eventually, and after a lot of whining.

The other lesson for me was that as a parent, we fall into habits as much as our kids do. My son was 12 when the Sandy hit, but I was still playing by the food rules that we’d surrendered to established when he was a toddler and refused to eat most fruits because they were “Slippery.” In the two years since, he’s become a much more adventurous eater. I can’t say this is entirely (or even partly) due to the hurricane experience–most likely it has more to do with the fact that he’s hitting his growth spurt and is just way hungrier than he ever was before (but still not hungry enough to eat slippery fruit). And, it’s not like he or my daughter have gone and become vegetarians over night: when the junk was available again, they went right back to it (and as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t really believe in banning anything outright). But: They have at least started to open themselves up to new food experiences, which is the first step toward a greater appreciation for different kinds of ingredients, flavors, cuisines, and textures. That’s as much a part of growing up as reading more complicated books, or learning to work independently. Having them expand their palettes has made dinners easier and our family life richer: we’re no longer cooking two different meals for the kids and the grown ups, and we can finally go out together to a restaurant (my favorite thing to do) that doesn’t have chicken nuggets on the menu.

So go ahead, starve your kids a little. It will be good for everyone.