Having It All: A Review of Overwhelmed



Overwhelmed_pbb_1504How do you work, love, and play when you don’t have the time?  In Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte, she offers parents insights into how to find more leisure time so they can enjoy rather than merely survive their time-pressured lives.  Seeing as I struggle with our modern world’s addiction to the daily grind, I was eager to read it for Parenting by the Book this April.

“This is how it feels to live my life,” Schulte writes.  “Scattered, fragmented, and exhausting.  I am always doing more than one thing at a time and feel I never do any one particularly well.  I am always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door.”  If you can relate, don’t feel bad.  According to Schulte, you’re not the only American feeling this way.

While we’ve become accustom to multi-tasking, the research shows, “No two tasks done simultaneously,” Schulte explains, “can be done with 100 percent of one’s ability.”  Still, our lives have become filled with what Schulte calls a “banal busyness” since “admitting you take time for yourself is tantamount to a show of weakness.”  Is it any wonder people feel guilty about leisure time?

I recently dropped my younger daughter off at a movie birthday party.  Many parents chose to stay with siblings.  My older daughter was at gymnastics so I decided to run errands instead.  When I told the mom I was leaving, she said, “I wish I was going shopping.”  I immediately felt the need to justify I was shopping for my family, “It’s only Trader Joes.”  This is one of the problems with parenting nowadays.  We can’t actually do something for ourselves.  What if I was going shopping for me?  Would that be so bad?

Unfortunately, the perception is if we’re not spending time serving our family then we’re not good parents.  This attitude contributes to the statistic that makes Schulte’s head spin, “In America, mothers today spend more time taking care of their children than mothers did in the 1960s, even though so many more are working, and working full-time, outside the home.”  How can that be?  Well, “Mothers have tripled the amount of time they spend in high-quality ‘interactive care,’ reading to and playing with their children.”

Another part of the problem is, as Shulte explains, “All those stolen glances at the smartphone, the bursts of addictive texting and e-mail checking at all hours with the iPhone, Android, or Blackberry by the bed, the constant connection…splinters the experiences of time into thousands of little pieces.  And living in an always-on technological haze leads to mental exhaustion.”  As a result, many people feel like they don’t have free time when in fact they do.  This is complicated, according to Schulte, because research shows, “What we think about ourselves and our lives is our reality.”

Sociologist John Robinson argues women have at least thirty hours of leisure time each week.  He explains, ‘It’s not as much as men, but women have more time than they did in the 1960s, even though more women are working outside the house.”  If your reaction is ‘Wait, that can’t be right?’  It was Schulte’s response, too.  However, once Robinson gives Schulte a definition of leisure, which includes everything from exercise to reading the newspaper, you understand where he’s coming from.  “If we don’t feel like we have leisure, Robinson maintains, it’s entirely our own fault.  Time is a smokescreen.  And it’s a convenient excuse.”  According to Robinson, “Saying ‘I don’t have free time,’ is just another way of saying, ‘I’d rather do something else.’”

Still, there’s no denying that the modern American parent is busy and our society has done little to account for the changing needs of families.  Overwhelmed is filled with fascinating statistics about working parents and work schedules.  Apparently, “The United States ranks dead last in virtually every measure of family policy in the world.” While Schulte references some of the issues I learned about in Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman, her comprehensive overview of America’s working families is eye-opening and definitely led me to agree with her conclusion.  Schulte argues, “The prevailing view [in America] seems to be: Why promote policies and change cultures to help mothers work if we aren’t so sure mothers should work at all?”

That’s one of the things I found so compelling about this book.  Schulte provides the cultural context for the ideal American worker, which isn’t a mother or father interested in spending time with their family, while also offering thorough examinations of other cultures, notably Denmark, where they have a much better handle on the work/life balance.  Guilt over having chosen to work – be it part-time or full-time – is simply not an issue for parents there.  As a result, according to the United Nations first ever World Happiness Report, Danish adults and children are both the happiest around.

Another reason for this is that Denmark doesn’t value of “face time” the way that American employers do.  They embrace the virtual elements technology affords us and focus on whether the job is done well, not where the job was done.  This is not the case in the United States, and Schulte explains, “Research shows that forcing long hours, face time for the sake of face time, and late nights actually kills creativity and good thinking, and the ensuing stress, anxiety, and depression eat up health-care budgets.”  Granted, Schulte acknowledges that Denmark is not a perfect society, but she does make it perfectly clear that valuing both the roles of women and men goes a long way in creating a functional and happy community.

So while I was out running errands I started thinking about what Schulte believes is the purpose of her book:  “This is about sustainable living, healthy populations, happy families, good business, sound economics, and living a good life.”  I “allowed” myself to stop for a quick dinner at Noodles & Company since my daughter was eating pizza at the Movie Tavern birthday party.  As I reveled in a bowl of Thai Curry soup, I thought about how pathetic it was that this pit stop was so restorative.  But I rarely eat curry because my kids don’t like it, and it was the first meal I’d had all day.  I’d driven to Old Dominion University that morning to present a teaching strategy I developed called “Rainbow Revisions” at their writing conference and traffic on Route 64, made worse by rain, meant both breakfast and lunch were eaten on the run, thanks to a stash of snacks I keep in the car.

That’s when I internalized Schulte’s message: How will my children ever achieve a work/life balance if they have no one to model it for them?  So if your goal is to work less and love and play more, then I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte.  It won’t change your life overnight, but it will make it easier to say “no” the next time someone asks you to bake cupcakes for school.  Besides, the last thing the kids need is more sugar (but that’s a book for another day).




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Moments that Matter Most: A Review of No Regrets Parenting


When you’re in the throes of parenting, it often feels like the exhaustion will never end, but as author and pediatrician, Harley Rotbart, points out, it does, and faster than you think.  Therefore, Rotbart offers basic principles and simple strategies in his book, No Regrets Parenting, so parents can appreciate the cherished moments of childhood.  If you’re interested in making the most of the 940 Saturdays you’ll have with your kids before they turn 18, then definitely pick up this book.

“This is a book about how to prioritize your kids’ needs within your adult schedules,” explains Rotbart.  Therefore, using short chapters and a simple structure, he first informs parents what the basic principles of No Regrets Parenting are and then offers strategies to put the mentality into practice.  Rotbart believes regardless of what parenting philosophy you subscribe to a single truth applies: Your kids need you to be there.  As a result, what it all boils down to is finding enough time.

Rotbart acknowledges that “there are minutes you can’t spare” and “moments that are lost to the realities of life.”  He’s not encouraging you to be with your kids 24/7.  In fact, he touts the benefits of letting kids have their space.  As far as Rotbart is concerned, the only thing you have to feel guilty about is not trying.  Therefore, he argues, “Be the kind of person you hope your kids will become.  And then spend enough time with them that they learn how to become that person.”

One of my favorite parts of this book is when Rotbart looks at the “quality” versus “quantity” time debate.  He argues, “Parents have compensated for having so little quantity of time to spend with their children by invoking ‘quality time.’  Quality time usually means brief and choreographed bursts of activity dedicated intensively and exclusively to the kids – and when those bursts expire, the kids get dropped off in front of the TV or at the babysitter’s.”

I think that social media does a really good job of “showing off” such “quality” (often costly) moments and so they are needlessly perpetuated.  When what Rotbart argues kids really need is for parents to redefine quality time.  He claims, “The new ‘quality time’ means meaningful and memorable time, regardless of duration or content.”  For the parent of a toddler, he says, it’s sharing kitchen time while the child learns how to finger Cheerios.  For the college student, he says, it might be spontaneous calls home.  The activity is irrelevant.  It’s being present in the moment that matters.

Another part of No Regrets Parenting I really connected with was the importance of rituals.  Rotbart warns parents not to limit their traditions to big, special occasions.   He says parents should be creative, even silly, when instituting such events like movie night.  The keys apparently are repetition and anticipation.  I know a lot of parents, who skip the anticipation part because if plans change then children are disappointed, but as I’ve found from experience, and Rotbart confirms, the excitement leading up to game night is half the fun.

For example, my 12yo delights in the idea of taco night so much she created this mini-menu board for me, using a picture frame (which she saw on Pinterest), so I could write down when it was and she could look forward to it. It’s nothing fancy, and it didn’t cost me any money, but it generates a smile and no doubt a positive memory, which is what No Regrets Parenting is all about.  I still recall the pizza nights of my youth with fondness.

Finally, I loved the chapter “Their ‘Week at a Glance’” because Rotbart argues, “The truest measure of you as a person may be your calendar.”  Except he doesn’t mean it in the way you might think – the more extracurricular activities, community service projects, religious meetings the better.  Instead, he asks, “If your calendar were to fall into the hands of a stranger, what would all the entries say about you?  Would the stranger reading your calendar recognize how important being a parent is in your life?”  And not because of all the places you drive your kids or all the activities you’ve signed them up in but how much time are you spending together?

At my house, we don’t play games as often as I’d like, but there’s a lot of laughs during family dinners, thanks to my witty husband, and thought-provoking stories before bed almost every night, courtesy of my fascination with books.  Sometimes, it’s only 15 minutes of cuddling and conversing, but since I’ve been doing reading aloud to them for 12 years now, it’s become part of the fabric of our lives that no one (not even my preteen) wants to miss.

And this brings me to one of the points Rotbart makes near the end of his book, “One of the harshest realizations for a parent is that young kids often forget those events that are the most memorable for parents.”  The extended vacations.  The expensive presents.  I’ve got scrapbooks, photo albums, and home videos galore, but I think when I ask my kids twenty years from now what they remember most from their time growing up, it will be laughing with dad during dinner and reading books with me.

No Regrets Parenting by Harley Rotbart is the kind of book that does a great job of reminding parents to strike a balance between work and family so that there will be time enough for these moments that matter most.


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Parenting Potential: A Review Mind in the Making


Using research to offer parents advice on how to raise well-rounded kids who achieve their full potential, Ellen Galinsky, in her book Mind in the Making, focuses on critical areas that kids don’t just pick up, and therefore, parents need to foster.  This book on the seven essential life skills every child needs makes for an informative read on the science of early learning.

Skill One: Focus and Self-Control

“Focus and self-control involve many executive functions of the brain, such as paying attention, remembering the rules, and inhibiting one’s initial response to achieve a larger goal,” explains Galinsky.  Furthermore, research from the University of Oregon indicates these skills can be taught.  However, Galinsky maintains that in our 24-7 world, which involves endless distractions, the ability to engage in sustained focus, as opposed to multi-tasking, can be extremely difficult but will actually serve your child better in the long run.

What are some of the best ways to promote focus?  Galinsky recommends weaving these skills into your everyday life.  Play activities, like puzzles, that require children to pay attention.  Read stories that encourage children to listen.  And realize that background noise, such as a television, disrupts children’s play.

Skill Two: Perspective Taking

According to Galinsky, perspective taking requires inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, and reflection.  While rarely on lists of essential skills, Galinsky argues it should be, using research from the University of California and MIT to show its importance.  Galinsky maintains, “Perspective taking involves the intellectual skill of discerning how someone else thinks and feels; it requires assembling our accumulated knowledge of that person, analyzing the situation at hand, remembering similar situations, recalling what others have told us about such situations, putting aside our own thoughts and feelings, and trying to feel and think as another person must feel and think.”

How can you promote perspective taking in children?  Galinsky believes one of the first steps is parents viewing teaching children to be with others as equally important to teaching them to be independent.  The easiest way to do this is to use everyday moments as opportunities to talk.  Galinsky points out that research shows that while parents often think children learn from ‘instruction’ the reality is that children learn by watching their parents.  So be sure to practice what you preach.

Skill Three: Communicating

While Galinsky believes children are born primed to communicate, parents play an important role in children’s language and literacy development.  She writes how parents need to understand it’s about developing an understanding of how to communicate verbally and in writing, as opposed to neglecting children’s comprehension in favor of skill and drill.  The process should be as enjoyable as possible and, Galinsky claims, parents should do everything they can to create an environment at home where words, reading, and listening are important.

How can you promote communicating with your children?  Galinsky writes parents should start by remembering the purpose of language, narrating your children’s experiences early on and helping them record their experiences later in life.  According to Galinsky, “Learning is powerfully enhanced when children and parents pay attention to the same thing.”  This is why reading to your children is so important.  It offers families the opportunity to talk about this shared story.

Skill Four: Making Connections

Making connections begins with sorting and categorizing, explains Galinsky, to the ‘aha’ moment, when children suddenly understand what previously evaded them.  While this chapter of Mind in the Making focuses a lot on how children develop their object and space sense, it sets the stage for when children literally pull it all together.  For example, connections between a child’s prior experience and a text she is reading can affect how well she comprehends what’s she’s read.  (The book Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman is a great resource for understanding the connections children make when they read.)

The best way to promote learning on the deepest level, according to Galinsky, is to tap into your child’s passion and encourage them to play creatively.  By giving your child specific feedback on their thinking and helping them see things in different ways, Galinsky claims to will help children see the possibilities for future connections.

Skill Five: Critical Thinking

“At its core, critical thinking is the ongoing search for valid and reliable knowledge to guide our beliefs and actions,” explains Galinsky.  Since critical thinking draws on all skills previously mentioned, it plays a crucial role in a child’s success.  Helping your child understand what’s valid and reliable knowledge is important because, as Galinsky argues, it lets them know when they need to turn to others for information and enables them to discern who best to help them.

How can you promote critical thinking in your children?  Try to avoid jumping in too quickly, as Galinsky states it stunts children’s curiosity and prevents them from gaining experiential knowledge.  Parents should also encourage their children to pursue their own ventures, be it setting up a lemonade stand, or in my daughter’s case starting a twisty bands bracelet business.  These experiences allow children to evaluate information and revise their actions accordingly.  Ultimately, Galinsky believes every child needs a metaphorical lemonade stand, as “caring strongly about interests beyond oneself engenders true focus.”

Skill Six: Taking on Challenges

Stress is becoming more and more of a factor in our children’s lives.  One of the reasons this is happening is because, as Galinsky notes, kids sense when their parents feel overwhelmed.  She writes, “39 percent rated their parents as frequently stressed.”

According to Galinsky, the biggest thing parents can do to help promote their children taking on challenges is manage their own stress.  Galinsky recommends you tell your children directly that you’ve had a bad day, as “most know it anyway from reading the nonverbal language of your behavior.”  Then, she suggests your share how you are going to cope with the situation.  This way, Galinsky explains, your kids see the whole picture and are better prepared when challenges on their way.

Skill Seven: Self-directed, Engaged Learning

Galinsky explains, “Carol Dweck of Stanford University has found that children who avoid challenges have a fixed mindset…whereas children who are willing to take on challenges have a growth mindset, seeing their abilities as something they can develop.”  It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that children with the growth mindset do better in school and ultimately life.

The Mind in the Making ends with Galinsky stressing that we teach best when we are learning.  “In study after study that my organization has conducted on parenting or on early education, we arrive at similar findings,” she notes. “Adults who continue to learn about children – about parenting them and teaching them – make the best parents and the best teachers.”

So hopefully, you’ll recognize what Galinsky points out in the end of her book.  None of these skills require expensive programs, fancy materials, or elaborate equipment – just a willingness, she explains, “for doing everyday things you do with children in new ways.”  After all, Galinsky makes it clear that being a parent not only means your children will learn from you for the rest of their lives, but you them.


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The Parenting Paradox: A Review of All Joy and No Fun


Over the last five years, I’ve read 60 titles for Parenting by the Book.  All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior is the first to move me to tears.  It’s not a parenting book in the traditional sense, offering advice; rather, it combines research with relevant anecdotes to capture the paradox of modern parenthood.  By the time you finish reading it, you realize that just as standardized tests can’t accurately measure what students learn at school, social science data doesn’t show the real joys of parenting.

Senior focuses on answering the question, “How did having children affect their mothers’ and fathers’ lives?”  She begins by exploring the complications of modern parenting: a lack of understanding of what having a baby really means, the loss of work boundaries thanks to technology, and an opportunity to explore one’s own potential longer than ever before.  Then, Senior walks readers through the stages of parenthood, and while there’s much food for thought, the following subjects really struck me.

She begins with autonomy and what Senior considers the awkward topic of boredom.  How long can one play Littlest Pet Shop without losing one’s mind?  Having been a stay-at-home mom for seven years, this was something I could relate to firsthand.  She explains that while one of the greatest gifts children give us is the ability to live in the moment, it makes getting into a flow hard to achieve.  Structure provides parents with a release from boredom, except the nagging necessary to wrangle toddlers into action often negates its rewards.

Senior looks specifically at one stay-at-home mom, who manages a photography business from home, and says she has “chosen the hardest path” – one more and more of us are choosing. We don’t want to miss out on parenting our young children, but we also don’t want to give up on our professional dreams.  I was home with my kids during the day and taught English in the evening.  Much like Jessie, the mother Senior spotlights, I was constantly being pulled in different directions in my attempt to “have it all.”  While “fun” wouldn’t have been the word I would have used to describe it then, now that I’m back to teaching full-time, I’d argue those were some of the best years of my life.

All Joy and No Fun also devotes a considerable amount of attention to marriage and how the division of labor at home is often still unequal.  According to Senior, in 2011, two sociologists “found that mothers, on average, spend ten extra hours per week multitasking than fathers, ‘and that these additional hours are mainly related to time spent on housework and childcare.’” Therefore, when Senior shares the results of a UCLA study – the biggest stress reliever for mothers was not leisure activities but seeing their husbands do housework – I’m not the least bit surprised.  I know nothing makes me happier than walking into the kitchen after I’ve finished reading to my kids at bedtime to discover that my husband has cleaned up.

Another issue Senior addresses is the isolation many parents feel.  While parents have loads of virtual friends, few are spending any face-time with them.  “In the mid- to late seventies, the average American entertained friends at home fourteen to fifteen times per year, according to Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam; by the late nineties, that number had split nearly in half, to eight.”  And while Senior acknowledges that raising children is easier when one has help, the reality is that, according to The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz, “The highest percentage of people living in extended families on record was just 20 percent, and that was between 1850 and 1885.”

While Senior does a great job of illuminating the simple gifts of parenting, I found her chapter on “Concerted Cultivation” to speak to the heart of modern parenting.  Senior notes, “Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard.  Children went from being our employees to our bosses.”  Interestingly enough, Senior notes, that “children have acquired more and more stuff the more useless they have become.”  Many middle class parents have come to believe that it’s their responsibility to perfect and refine their children in order to ready them for the world, Senior argues.  The problem is we don’t know exactly what we’re preparing them for.

In the old days, parents prepared their children to take over the family business but nowadays choices and possibilities abound, leaving parents baffled as to how to best to help their children to be successful.  As a result, mothers have gone from “housewives” to “stay-at-home moms” and Senior explains that this “change in nomenclature reflects the shift in cultural emphasis.”  To say that parents are responsible for their children’s schooling, clothing, or feeding means something entirely different than it did even fifty years ago – when moms were sewing dresses and canning foods.

Ultimately, Senior’s chapter on “Adolescence” was my favorite; for it exposes the fact that teenagers “brimming with potential” make parents wonder “who we’ll be and what we’ll do with ourselves once they don’t need us.”  And while my older daughter is only twelve, it really got me thinking about my life’s second act.

In the end, the title, All Joy and No Fun, seems misleading because Senior actually proves that parenthood, like life, is about the good and the bad.  Essentially, Senior argues, “The whole experience of being a parent exposes the superficiality of our preoccupation with happiness.”  Rather it gets to the heart of the matter.  The connection that gets us up in the morning.  The connection that keeps us up in the middle of the night.  Senior explains that real joy stems from a deep bond that is impossible to achieve alone, and while being a parent means you are a “hostage to fate,” when we’re asked to think about what makes us happy, we can’t help but answer “our kids.”

We were on our way home from Florida, when I finished reading this All Joy and No Fun.  My husband was driving.  My eight-year-old, who gets car sick, was listening to a play-away of The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens.  My twelve-year-old was reading The Scorch Trials by James Dashner.  And I was wiping away tears when I read the chapter “Joy” and all I could think was, “This is what she’s talking about – me reveling in this moment when we’re all lost in the worlds words offer us.”

So if you’re inclined to agree with Senior, who argues that “kids open windows to new activities and new ideas” and thereby make our lives more meaningful, than I highly recommend you read All Joy and No Fun.  For, as you already know, while not everything about parenthood is fun, ultimately parenting is a joy.


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The Gift of Reading: A Review of The Book Whisperer  


“So many children don’t read,” argues Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer, “They don’t read well; they don’t read often enough; and if you talk to children, they will tell you that they don’t see reading as meaningful in their lives.”

Therefore, teacher Donalyn Miller set out to awaken the inner reader in every child that entered her classroom.  Her approach is nontraditional, especially in our test-crazed age.  However, Miller claims her students not only read over forty books a year but an average of 85 percent of her students score in the 90th percentile on the state reading assessment.

What does this have to do with parenting?  Well, as Miller identifies the weaknesses in school reading programs, she illuminates the mistakes of well-intentioned parents as well.  Whether it’s trying to get their children to read the books they want them to or failing to model what it means to be a life-long reader, there’s much for parents to take-away from The Book Whisperer.

First and foremost, Miller believes all children are readers.  Therefore, she doesn’t focus on how difficult it might be for them to read at least forty books in one school year and she doesn’t talk about how many of them don’t like to read.  She claims, “If I were to acknowledge that these excuses have merit, I would allow them to become reasons for my students not to read.”  As far as Miller is concerned, “Students must believe that they can read and that reading is worth learning how to do well.”

Miller believes that building lifelong readers begins with “encounters with great books, heartfelt recommendations, and a community of readers who share this passion.”  Success in reading, therefore, has to do with creating the conditions for learning.

Immersion – Kids need to be surrounded by books. All genres.  All reading levels.  I’m always surprised when I go into homes of parents, who are eager to raise readers, yet there isn’t a book in sight.  Their kids’ bookshelves have a collection of picture books they outgrew years ago and a handful of books they’ve since acquired at school book fairs.  This just isn’t enough to create a word-rich environment.  Now I’ll be the first to admit I don’t buy many new books, but we frequent used books stores and make regular trips to the library.  I have five library cards for all the surrounding counties.  If there’s a book we want, one of them will have it.

Demonstration – Miller believes children need ample examples of how to use texts to meet their needs. It’s up to parents to model how books play a role in the different aspects of their lives.  I’m always amazed when parents tell me how they are always telling their kids they need to read yet when I ask parents what book they’re reading the parents say they don’t have time.  In addition to the monthly title I read for Parenting by the Book, I read every night and listen to books during my daily commute so there’s never any doubt in my children’s minds that I value reading.

Expectations – Miller sets high annual goals for her students because she says it forces them to always have a book they are reading. This past year, I set the goal of reading 50 books and my twelve year old set the goal of reading 35.  At the time of writing this blog, I am two books away from my goal and she is five from hers.  While I didn’t require her to read a variety of genres, as Miller does, I did keep tabs on her progress and praised her as she moved closer to reaching her goal.

Responsibility – Miller believes kids need to choose books that interest them and schools (parents) need to resist the temptation to pressure children into reading books what they believe to be better “quality” book. The important thing is that children are reading and developing a love of reading.  While I read a lot of books, my daughter has different interests than me so sometimes I struggle to recommend titles when she’s wrapped up a favorite series and is looking for something else.  I let her join Goodreads, which is a “social cataloguing” website that allows members to rate books and receive recommendations.  My daughter and I not only keep track of books we’ve read but also those we want to read.  It’s revolutionized my reading life.

Employment – Children need time to read. Sadly, the busier our lives get the less likely we are to make time for books.  My kids keep books on their nightstands, in their backpacks, and the backseat of the car.  Something to read is always close by.  At the very least, they read before bed.

Response – Since the world is our classroom, parents have to capitalize on opportunities to provide encouragement during daily conversations. I still read aloud to my kids – ages 8 and 12 – for exactly this reason.  Books give us the means to discuss all kinds of topics.  We recently finished reading Number the Stars by Lois Lowry during our Thanksgiving road trip.  When I reached the Afterword and read an excerpt from a letter by a Danish Resistance leader during World War II, my husband heard the quiver in my voice and asked, “Are you crying?”  Of course, I was, and I didn’t need to look into the backseat to know my children were emotional, too.

Engagement – When it comes down to it, I want my children to know books move me. As Miller points out, “Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time.”  I want reading to be something worth doing well.

According to Miller, she is often confronted by people claiming she isn’t preparing students for the real world, and she agrees, “It’s true, if the real world means years of comprehension worksheets and test practice.”  But those of us who love the printed word know that the purpose of school is to “embrace reading as a lifelong pursuit,” as Miller claims.

Miller believes, and as an English educator of 22 years I couldn’t agree more, that “Readers are made, not born.”  Therefore, Miller argues children need a balance between teaching literature and facilitating their growth as life-long readers.  Since I’m not calling the shots at my kids’ schools, I try to make reading as enjoyable as it can be at home.  Sure, my kids will get a couple of books this holiday, but my real gift to them is making reading part of our daily lives.  While it can’t be wrapped up and put under a tree, it doesn’t mean it isn’t something they’ll cherish.

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Real Girls Rule: A Review of The Curse of the Good Girl


I decided to read The Curse of the Good Girl by Rachel Simmons because I was worried about the dangers of “the ideal girl” curtailing my daughters’ power and potential.  But what I quickly discovered is that one doesn’t need to have daughters to get something out of this title, as Simmons tackles the curse of the Good Mother and Good Wife as well.  Ultimately, it not only gives practical strategies to help parents raise authentic girls with courage and confidence but it also offers thorough explanations as to why it’s important to erase the “nice girl” image from all women’s lives.

According to Simmons, “The Curse of the Good Girl erects a psychological glass ceiling that begins its destructive sprawl in girlhood and extends across the female life span, stunting the growth of skills and habits essential to becoming a strong woman.”  The problem is that while the Good Girl is socially and academically successful, Simmons explains, she represses what she thinks and is unable to handle her mistakes with humor.  These behaviors present numerous issues in the long term.

“There is nothing wrong with being a nice person,” Simmons maintains, “But girls need to have the tools to say no, to ask for what they need, and to say what they think.”  Otherwise, they will forever hide their feelings in favor of keeping the peace and as a result never learn how to engage in emotionally honest conversations.

You might not realize it, but you likely hear such stifled conversations on a regular basis.  Take the phrases “No offense” or “Just kidding” as examples.  They have become the staples of Good Girlspeak, according to Simmons.  She claims, “On the surface the phrases appear innocuous, cute little jabs that aren’t supposed to leave a mark.  But they contain an invidious logic about human behavior and personal responsibility, something along the lines of, If I didn’t mean it, it didn’t happen.”

This kind of language is problematic because if girls can’t speak the truth then chances are they won’t seek out the truth either.  This inability to pursue the answers to their questions forces girls to draw conclusions from what Simmons calls “dubious evidence: an unreturned wave, an ambiguous facial gesture, or a coy remark.”  Using assumptions, like these, to steer their relationships prevents girls from fully engage with other people.

Simmons argues, “They passively deduce the truth rather than seek it and imagine what is real instead of asking for it.”  This often leaves girls lost in what Simmons refers to as the Landscape of Girls’ Assumptions:

  • Assuming the worst
  • Assuming emotions: I know how she feels
  • Assuming emotions: She should know how I feel

Furthermore, the Curse of the Good Girl creates a “peer culture where taking responsibility for mistakes indelibly marks your reputation and where the rules for social success are at odds with being honest,” explains Simmons.  In other words, girls can’t admit to mistakes without it leading to the questioning of their self-worth.  In the short term, it’s easier simply to deny their failings, but in the long term, the practice promotes shame because the girls have hidden so much of their true selves.

How does criticism factor in to the Curse of the Good Girl?  Simmons includes some persuasive information from a study by psychologist Carol Dweck:  “Girls may have a stronger reaction to criticism because of the type they receive… It was different in kind from what girls heard.  Boys were told to “calm down” or “work harder,” comments easy to disregard.  Girls, on the other hand, heard critiques related to ability, making it harder for them to discount.”  As a result, girls take criticism personally, and when they do, Simmons notes, “they interpret a comment about an issue as a sign that something is wrong with a relationship.”

Simmons warns, “Girls do not develop their responses to criticism in a vacuum.”  Part of the current problem with the Good Girl image is that perfectionism is so pervasive not only in our culture but in our parenting.  Simmons argues, “Parents seem less willing than ever to abide an ordinary, mistake-making child.  This shift in the culture is leaving its mark on how all children handle criticism, as pressure to overachieve turns feedback into a moment of failure rather than opportunity.”

As a result, Simmons believes, “What girls need is a careful balance between self-concept and the mistakes they will inevitably make.”  Therefore, Simmons stocks the second half of her book with instructions on breaking the curse.  So if you’re interested in finding out more about turning your Good Girl into a Real Girl, then I suggest checking out this great book.



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Preserving Parental Ties: A Review of Hold Onto Your Kids


According to Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate, authors of Hold On to Your Kids, parents need to matter more than peers.  As a parent with a preteen, my child is often being invited to friends’ houses for, what I consider, unusually extended sleep-overs, which leave me feeling old-fashioned for wanting to spend quality time with my kids on the weekends.  So I was interested to learn more about how peer orientation stunts healthy growth, especially since it seems like I’m always coming across advice to “let go” of my kids as they age. Once I discovered why it’s so problematic for teens, in particular, to value peers over parents, this title took a place on my must-read list.

“For the first time in history young people are turning for instruction, modeling, and guidance not to mothers, fathers, teachers, and other responsible adults but to people whom nature never intended to place in a parenting role – their own peers,” argue Neufeld and Mate.  They define this phenomenon, which has taken place over the last fifty years, as peer orientation.  Neufeld and Mate explain that it “masquerades as natural or goes undetected because we have become divorced from our intuitions and because we have unwittingly become peer-oriented ourselves.”

The authors also share the results from a fascinating, international study, which links the breakdown of this vertical transmission of mainstream culture to increases in youth crime, violence, bullying, and delinquency.  This trend in peer orientation parallels a fourfold increase in suicides over the last fifty years in the ten-to-fourteen age range in North America, explain Neufeld and Mate.  The authors believe, “The more peers matter, the more children are devastated by the insensitive related of their peers, by failing to fit in, by perceived rejection or ostracization.”

That’s not to say that the authors are against your child becoming independent, but they define “healthy” teenage rebellion, as the attempt to define oneself part from both family and friends.  What is happening more often is that teenagers are replacing their parents with their peers, and as a result, they are unable to grow up into healthy adults.  “Children may know what they want, but it is dangerous to assume that they know what they need,” maintain Neufeld and Mate.  “To the peer-oriented child it seems only natural to prefer contact with friends to closeness with family, to be with them as much as possible, to be as much like them as possible.”

With communication technology changing more rapidly than ever, it has unfortunately only exacerbated the problem.  Neufeld and Mate explain, “We have unwittingly put it into the hands of children who, of course, are using it to connect with their peers.  Because of their strong attachment needs, the contact is highly addictive, often becoming a major preoccupation.”  That’s why it’s important that we enforce the typical, original reason for the purchase of such technology – easy communication between parent and child.

Hold Onto Your Kids reviews how since World War II, we’ve become a culture of missing attachments.  Modern America stands in stark contrast to the traditional, multigenerational cultures of our past.  As a result, the authors believe that the “natural order has been subverted.”  While Neufeld and Mate are quick to clarify that two working parents are not the problem, they do identify the lack of consideration many people give to attachment as problematic.  “Because caring for the young is undervalued in our society, day care is not well funded.  It is difficult for a nonrelative to meet an individual child’s attachment and orienting needs fully, especially if several other infants and toddlers are vying for that caregiver’s attention,” argue Neufeld and Mate.  Add onto this geographic dislocations and the deterioration of the extended family unit, children are much less likely to learn from elders, who are committed to their welfare, claim Neufeld and Mate.

Therefore, “The secret to parenting is not in what a parent does but rather who the parent is to a child,” believe Neufeld and Mate.  In other words, Neufeld and Mate write, “The power to execute our parental responsibilities lies not in the neediness of our children but in their looking to us to be the answer to their needs.”  Ultimately, what Hold Onto Your Kids maintains is that attachment can help a parent protect a child, much in the same way the main character of the critically acclaimed film, Life is Beautiful, did during World War II.

While you might not be able to change what’s going on in the world, you can make sure you aren’t prematurely replaced by following the advice in this book.  It closes with powerful chapters on “Discipline that Doesn’t Divide” and “Re-Create the Attachment Village.”  So whether it’s establishing the proper hierarchy in your home or keeping your children’s loyalty as they grow up, I highly recommend Hold Onto Your Kids, for Neufeld and Mate will help parents preserve the ties that empower their children.


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The Heart of Happy: A Review of Raising Happiness


With school starting back up soon, I wanted to read something that would keep me mindful of the difference between my children excelling in school and being happy in school.  And the rest of their lives for that matter.  So this month I’m blogging on Raising Happiness by Christine Carter.  While Carter insists in her book that happy people are typically also successful people, I think it’s easy to lose sight of what it is we want most for our children – happiness.  So I was curious to find out more about Carter’s 10 simple steps for making more joyful kids and parents.

Carter begins by defining happiness as “much more than a mood or a cheerful disposition.  Rather, a happy life is one that is full of lots of different types of positive emotions.”  Then, she explains that “happiness is a skill that we can teach our children.”  And who wouldn’t want to teach her child that, especially after Carter establishes how important happiness is in the long run?  Did you know happy people tend to be healthier and live longer?  Teaching your child how to be happy is like the gift that keeps on giving.

I loved “Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First” because, as Carter reminds readers, “our own happiness as parents influences our children’s happiness in a variety of ways.”  Mainly, a depressed parent isn’t able to offer empathy and play in an “emotionally positive way.”  And as Carter points out, “Kids are great perceivers of emotion and tension, but most often they think that they are responsible for their parents’ fighting, or even their parents’ unhappiness.”

Next, Carter argues that happy people have better relationships, as people want to be with them.  She claims, “Despite the fact that technology and social media make it easier than ever to be “connected” to lots of people all the time, Americans are becoming less and less connected to one another.”  When Carter’s life gets so hectic that she has no time to spend with friends, she thinks about what kind of role model she’s being for her children and schedules some face time with a friend.

I also loved how Carter devoted a section of “Build a Village” to the importance of volunteering.  She shares a variety of effective research throughout the book, but in this case, it’s a powerful study of how “people 55 and older who volunteer for two or more organizations had an impressive 44 percent lower likelihood of dying during the study period.”  Therefore, doing good for others is really doing good for yourself, thanks to what Carter label’s the “helper’s high.”  She uses this physical state to back up why parents shouldn’t reward helping behavior, as it robs kids of the intrinsic motivation that comes from doing good for someone else.

But my favorite part was in the chapter, “Expect Effort and Enjoyment, Not Perfection,” and how choice can be a curse.  Carter claims, “Happy people have different decision-making processes than unhappy people; they tend to ‘satisfice’.”  This means to choose something based on “present criteria and move on.”  It’s the opposite of what she calls “maximizing,” which sadly I do all the time.  I’m always analyzing every situation ad nauseam and then agonizing over whether I made the right decision once I finally make one.  Reading Carter’s description of my behavior was eye-opening, as the last thing I want to do is perpetuate that kind of perfectionism in my daughters.  So I’m thinking of trying out one of her tips – to employ the prompt “One mistake I made today…” at the dinner table so we can all practice coping with our imperfections.

This book does a great job of helping readers set the stage for their children’s happiness by addressing such things as how to form happiness habits and how to rig your environment for happiness.  Her suggestion to practice gratitude is just the beginning of the art and science of raising happy kids.  Because contrary to what you might want to believe higher income only correlates with higher happiness up to $50,000 a year.  After basic needs are met, Carter claims, “Financial resources seem to lose their hold on our happiness and well-being.”  So check out Raising Happiness by Christine Carter if you’re looking for a resource to help you instill joy in your family’s life.


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Taking Back Youth Sports: A Review of Changing the Game


With sports and kids’ extra-curricular schedules ever on parents’ minds, I decided to blog about Changing the Game by John O’Sullivan in the hopes of giving parents pause before signing their children up for fall sports.  According to O’Sullivan, “Seventy percent of kids drop out of organized sports by age 13.”  O’Sullivan claims, “Some children quit because of financial hardship, others because they acquire other interests, but many children quit because sports is no longer fun.”  Therefore, if you’re interested in putting the “play” back in “play ball,” I highly recommend you check out this book.

How did youth sports become so over-competitive and under-fun?  O’Sullivan believes it’s the result of three myths:

Myth #1 – Children need to specialize early in a specific sport if they want to play competitively, play high school, play college, or even play professional sports.

Myth #2 – Sports, and especially travel and competitive-level sports, are an investment in a future scholarship or contract.

Myth #3 – Parents and coaches who want to develop high performers must focus on winning.

The reality is, according to O’Sullivan, “Since 1947, only twenty-three players who participated in the Little League World Series – the ultimate event for twelve-year-old baseball players – have also played in the major leagues.”  So if you’re trading your kids’ free-time for more field time, think again.  If you’re spending money on expensive coaches and athletic gear, stop.  O’Sullivan claims, “The single greatest factor that affects performance can be developed absolutely free.”  It’s a mindset.

According to O’Sullivan, “A high-performing mindset requires the absence, or at least a minimum, of the physical, emotional, and mental obstructions that many of our young athletes face:”

  • The pressure to win
  • The absence of enjoyment
  • Excessive criticism and yelling
  • Sports as work and not play
  • Poor adult mentors

O’Sullivan argues there’s been a shift in paradigm in youth sports away from its most important purpose – “to develop character and core values based upon universally accepted social and ethical principles.”  And O’Sullivan doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that the current negative culture of youth sports coincides with the quick-fix mentality prevalent in American culture.  He says, “We now expect instant solutions that get us in shape, help us lose weight, and make us feel better…We have become a society that lacks accountability for our current situation, and we feel entitled to quick and cost-effective remedies…We no longer realize that real solutions are only achieved through commitment, effort, and a process that starts from within.”

We can all pretty much agree that youth sports look a lot different now than they did when we were growing up.  While O’Sullivan explains, “Some parents tell him that when they were kids they played all the time and their kids can too,” O’Sullivan is quick to remind people, “We played for fun and not under the watch of our parents or adult supervisors each and every day.”  That’s part of the reason I find the trend of parents staying to watch practices, in addition to games, troubling.  Kids need time to experience the trial and error required to succeed in sports without an parenting ready to offer advice at all times.

Finally, in Changing the Game, O’Sullivan argues why it’s important parents stop chasing the scholarship myth.  Sadly, “Only 3-5 percent of high school athletes even play in college, an even smaller number receive athletic financial aid,” reports O’Sullivan.  “About one in one thousand high school athletes receives a (partial) college scholarship, and about one in thirteen thousand ever becomes a professional.”  However, O’Sullivan is quick to note, “Between 30-50 percent of youth sports parents believe their child is good enough.”

As far as O’Sullivan is concerned, “The people responsible for this [trend in youth sports], and the only ones who can change it, are the adults.”  So if you’re interested in giving youth sport back to your kids, then get Changing the Game – my new must-read parenting title – and check out this title for information on seven actionable principles for raising happy, high-performing athletes.



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Childsick: A Review of Homesick and Happy


Blog_Homesick-Happy“Camp directors tell me that managing “childsickness” – parents’ longing for their absent camper – is becoming a bigger problem for them than dealing with homesickness,” Thompson writes in Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow.  Having just survived my older daughter’s first week-long sleep-away camp experience, I know exactly what he means.  While my eleven-year-old child doesn’t have a telephone yet, I’m religious about keeping tabs on her whereabouts so it was a bit surreal to not know how she was spending her days.

Thanks to social media, I was able to join a password protected closed group on Facebook to see pictures periodically, certainly a means of managing the ‘childsickness’ Thompson writes of.  While a glimpse of my daughter’s smile during a “dance party” put me at ease, for other parents the pictures only seemed to make the situation worse, as Thompson predicted, for they were frantically posting, “Where’s Suzie?” and harassing the site administrators, “Why aren’t you taking in pictures of the Counselors in Training?”  I wanted to write, “Sign off Facebook, get yourself a copy of Homesick and Happy, and leave these poor counselors alone.  Your kid is going to be fine.”

Instead, I read “Childsick and Happy” for some reaffirmation that parents becoming so involved in their child’s experience it’s a detriment.  Thompson offers and elaborates on seven suggestions to keep you from suffering too much from childsickness:

  1. Give your child the gift of letting him or her go.
  2. Prepare your child for homesickness.
  3. Do no try to manage homesickness from a distance.
  4. Do not make the “We’ll take you home if you’re unhappy” deal.
  5. Help your children practice the skills they need before they leave.
  6. Use letters, postcards, and other slower forms of communication.
  7. Take a vacation from parenting, have some fun, and don’t feel guilty about it.

Thompson realizes that sending your child to sleep-away camp requires your willingness to “let go of your importance in your child’s life to make space for someone else and new experiences” but it’s worth it.  Camp is a magical time, which is why most people remember it so fondly.  As I walked around camp on the day I dropped my daughter off, I was flooded with wonderful memories of hiking, crafting, and singing from my youth.  While it was difficult to say good-bye, I knew I was making it possible for her to create wonderful memories of her own.

From a psychologist’s point of view, Thompson maintains camp offers numerous elements that make for an emotionally powerful experience for children:

  1. Opportunities for imagination, play, and creativity
  2. Camp is not school (No tests, judgment, or evaluation)
  3. Character development: “I feel part of something bigger.”
  4. Independence, self-esteem, and identity
  5. Friendship and social skills
  6. Making a relations with nature
  7. Relationships between counselors and children
  8. Leadership training

“The essential difference between [school and camp] has to do with the high stakes of school and the lower stakes at camp.  You could argue that camp is full of contests, competition, and evaluation,” Thompson concedes, however, “Camp contests teach you to be able to make a heroic effort, laugh about it, and move on.  Camp contests, done right, are group play.”  This, of course, is something sorely lacking in most school settings.

If you still have your doubts, Thompson writes, “Perhaps the single most important finding in the camp research literature is that children who attend camp come home feeling independent and confident.”  Since “true self-esteem comes not from praise but from real experiences of skill building and making a contribution to a community,” the camp setting provides kids something they really can’t get anywhere else.

When I picked up my daughter yesterday, everything she’d packed was filthy and her eyes looked sleepy, to say the least, but she teared up when she said good-bye to her counselors and her cabin mates.  As we walked to the car with bittersweet smiles on our faces and stories of campfires and horseback riding being told a mile a minute, I felt so good about having the courage to let her go.  Clearly, this will be a week she’ll never forget.




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