The #2 Thing Anyone Can Do to Help the Church

There are two myth-making forces at work in the McCarrick scandals.  One is denial.  Clinging to the idea that there are a few bad apples, and they are just so very sneaky and that’s why they got away with their crimes.

The other myth is that the good guys can fix this.  We imagine we can run over to Costco and pick up the plenty-pack of Accountability Spray, and with enough elbow grease the house will be squeaky clean again.  Everyone pitch in!

If the Church is a house, myth #1 is that the fridge is a disaster and needs to hauled to be the dump, can’t decide whether to fumigate the couch in the den or just burn it, and let’s rip out that musty carpet in the back bedroom — then everything will be fine again.  A few cobwebs and a squeaky staircase?  Typical old house.  Relax.

Myth #2 is that sure, we belong on an episode of Hoarders, but if we call in the team we can all work together until the junk has been cleared out and the walls and floors are all scrubbed down.

That’s not what we have.  What we have is extensive rot in load-bearing walls.

What does the rot look like?  It looks like this comment from the fabled orthodoxy-wonderland Diocese of Lincoln:

I’m glad someone has finally spoken about this.  A fellow-seminarian (now-priest) and I were tormenetd by MK’s [Msgr Kalin] behaviors for a long while.  Our experience was part of what led +Fabian to order that at least 2 people accompany MK on the stadium walks.  I wish it weren’t true, but it is.

What was happening is that Msgr. Kalin, who was both diocesan director of vocations and director of the University of Nebraska Newman Center, was molesting his students.  The former student explains:

Since you seem to be afraid to read between the lines, I will state it plainly: repeatedly asking to touch and be touched in inappropriate places, asking for “French kisses”, and doing these actions without being given permission — to say nothing of the entire grooming process by which these actions/gestures were normalized.  I finally said something after my friend walked into the chapel literally *shaking* after one of these episodes, because until then, I thought it was just me.  It was at that point I woke up to how twisted the whole situation was and had been for some time.  Now, think about the fact that this is coming from the person who made himself your confessor and spiritual director.

UPDATE: Here is an account of Wan Wei Hsien’s experience that provides a clearer timeline of events.

This is the same Msgr. Kalin who was the picture of a balanced commitment to priestly chastity in an interview for American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church:

When I asked Kalin about homosexuality, he said, “I get to know a candidate pretty well before I recommend him to the seminary, and if I think someone is an active homosexual, I’ll take him aside and we’ll agree that the priesthood isn’t for him.  On the other hand, Bishop Flavin always said that he didn’t care what someone’s inclinations were, as long as he was sincerely committed to a chaste life.”

American Catholic by Charles Morris, p. 387

Predators cover their tracks.

A healthy, sane person would react to such betrayal with shock, despair, and disbelief.   If the lone-predator myth were true,  then when Msgr. Kalin’s deception was uncovered, a clear-thinking supervisor would do a thorough investigation and either exonerate the accused or determine the man was not competent for ministry.

What was bishop Fabian Bruskewitz’s solution to this problem?  Require seminarians to only visit their director in pairs.

That’s right: The bishop understands that the director of seminarians can’t be trusted alone in the room with a seminarian . . . but he still thinks the man is competent to direct the formation of the diocese’s future priests?

This is the behavior of people in abusive relationships.

***

Here’s an interesting article in that it shows you the shiny veneer of a dysfunctional family.  Compare the key players in that happy vocations story to the names in Rod Dreher’s efforts to dig out the facts on the Kalin case (quoted above).  Gives you pause for thought.

***

People in abusive or dysfunctional relationships behave in insane ways.  There is constant blame-shifting, avoidance of responsibility, and generating of excuses and distractions to cover over the real problems.  Anyone who tries to speak reason or point out real problems becomes the enemy.  The status quo must be preserved.  Everyone tied up in the abusive relationship has somehow come to believe that their safety is threatened if anything disrupts their twisted, tormented way of life.

So seminarians are sent to see their director in pairs.

A generation of priests in one of the most boomingly orthodox dioceses in the nation were formed by a notorious lecher who was left in office after his crimes were known to the bishop.

That’s not about McCarrick.  That’s about Bruskewitz.  Different theology, different politics, different dioceses . . . same problem.  All across the nation and around the world, whitewashed pillars of the church are decayed to the core with this rot of abusive and dysfunctional relationships.

***

I and others who have been writing about the McCarrick fallout get letters from church-workers, clergy and laity alike.  We get thanked for our open, outspoken coverage of the bishops’ failure of leadership.  And invariably there’s a coda: “I can’t say anything myself.  I have to be careful.”

Yes, I know about that.  I know about being pushed out of a parish ministry because I held someone accountable for a gross failure of common sense where child safety policies were concerned.  I know about silence and “discretion” that involves never, ever, speaking up with plain answers.  I know about people accused of sexual crimes against children threatening lawsuits if you share public information about the status of their legal case . . . even as they are in the process of inviting your own children to their home.

I know about that.

***

I also know that things are complicated.  I know that false accusations happen.  I’ve been the key witness in a case defending an innocent man against an egregious and absolutely fabricated, revenge-motivated accusation.  I know that decent people get overwhelmed in difficult situations, and we don’t always handle the moment in the best way.  I know that sometimes you are under the gun and you do something really dumb, and you regret it later, and you resolve to never do it again.  I know that sometimes you examine a situation carefully, and you still come to the wrong conclusion about the best way to handle it.  I know that sometimes you just don’t understand how serious a situation is, and you don’t treat it with the gravity it deserves.  Stupid happens.  It happens to all of us.

***

Here’s the difference between stupid and dysfunctional:  Healthy people don’t build their lives around defending and perpetuating stupid.

***

So what can anyone, in any state of life, do in response to the rot of abuse and dysfunction in our Church?

Of course #1 is to fast and pray.  You know that.  You don’t need a blog post about it.

The response that hurts is #2: You have to act like a healthy person.  You have to refuse to be part of the cycle of dysfunction and abuse.

The only way for the Body of Christ to be healthy is for members of that Body to be healthy.  The gangrene stops here.

***

That’s not fun.  It gets ugly fast, because the dysfunctional people will pull out every weapon they have to fight your insistence on sane behavior.  You can expect lying, evading, shunning . . . the works.

What does it mean in parish life?  It means you might not have much of a parish life.  It means that you might become the persona non grata, because you refuse to play along and pretend everything is fine.  It means you or a family member might be denied the sacraments.

***

Oh no!  In that case—

Think about it.  You’re afraid that if you refuse to sin, and if you refuse to be party to perpetuating sin . . . you’ll be cut off from the grace of God?

That’s not how God works.

How God works is that He rewards His prophets by having them thrown into a cistern.  He rewards His son’s obedience with the Cross.  But His grace is right there the whole time.

File:Dome Cappella Chigi from inside, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, Italy.jpg

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Teaching Your Kids to Climb

At the NYT: Motherhood in the Age of Fear.  It’s about the way mothers (but not fathers) are condemned for taking “risks” that are, statistically, safer than other perfectly acceptable parenting behaviors.

In discussion of this article, a reader shared how the other mothers at the playground didn’t appreciate that the reader’s kid could safely climb up high without needing a parent hovering at every moment.

I want to talk about this.  I want to talk about how my kids learned to climb.

***

The boy was climbing before he could walk.  That’s the nature of the boy.  He broke his collarbone twice in twelve years doing ordinary kid things with feet on the ground (tripped over a rug; bonked by another kid playing tag), but has climbed his way through 18 years without incident.  By “without incident” we include the time he slipped into a rocky crevasse and fell perhaps twelve feet onto the ground beside a raging stream below, but was just fine, because he was in the habit of practicing falling at his friends’ house.  By “without incident” I mean: “Without injury.”

The boy was going to climb things.

We live near a playground.  We would go to the playground, and when he was a toddler (not yet two years old), I would stand behind him as he climbed and spot him.  What it means when you “spot” a climber is not that you are there to catch them.  It means that you are there to prevent serious injury.  I would verbally warn the boy to hold on tight, and I would warn him if he wasn’t being careful.  And then if he fell despite my warnings, I would let him take the fall.

So he felt a few falls.  He wasn’t injured, because I was there to make sure he fell in a way that didn’t cause injury.

By the time he was two, he could climb anything at all, and he had a grip that wouldn’t quit.

***

That’s how you teach kids to climb.  We taught our daughters the same way, and I will say the one drawback is that our youngest complains bitterly about ordinary hikes on smooth ground.  She only really likes trails that require constant scrambling through technically-challenging rocky terrain.

That’s how you teach kids to do anything.  You have to find a balance between giving them risks, but managing the risks.  One of my grandmothers-in-law told of teaching her boys to cross the street in downtown Baltimore. First she’d teach them by example.  Then she’d make them practice with her present.  And then she would send them out alone, and discretely watch from a distance to be sure they were doing as she’d taught them.   When she was satisfied they had learned how to safely cross every time, she quit watching and let them roam free.

My own grandmother told the story of coming to visit us, and passing my little sister as she was walking home.  Grandma stopped and said, “Would you like a ride home?”  My sister kept walking furiously, refusing to make eye contact.

Why?  My mom had taught her not to accept rides unless the two of them had planned it ahead — no getting in the car even with someone you know. She’d told my sister that one day she would test her by having a friend see if she could get my sister into a car.  My sister assumed this was the test.

She passed.

***

Professors I know are talking about how kids are coming to college less and less able to cope every year.

The attack on “negligent” mothers feeds into this.

What are you teaching your kids?  Are you teaching them to be perpetual babies, always needing someone to follow them around and rescue them from the least little risk?

Or are you teaching them how to climb?

Minecraft for Adults!

The 14-year-old, she of recent heart-surgery fame, got to talking about wanting to be the one to design the rooms for a much-wanted minor renovation of our living space.  (Tip: When your children double in size, they need slightly more bedroom space than back in the glory days when you could squeeze them all into bunks like pint-sized sailors.)

The girl likes to design and decorate.  She keeps begging to design my classroom for this fall (yes, me with a regular teaching job — whoa!).  She has built whole neighborhoods in Minecraft, year after year of new communities.  She went through a phase where she played World of Tanks with the prime object of driving around looking at the houses.  And of course there have been countless 3-D models built — wood block, plastic block, cardboard doll houses, you name it.

So I told her if she wanted to design her brother’s new bedroom, she needed to get on Google SketchUp and do it there.

She grabbed the good computer (smart kid — knows when she can get away with claiming the parents’ computer) and started searching around.  Periodically she’d call out with a question from the other room, but after enough times of me calling back, “Look up a tutorial on YouTube and watch that,” she quit asking for help and just figured it all out.  Which was necessary, since I have never actually used SketchUp.  I just knew it existed.

Five or six hours in, she declared,”This is addictive. It’s like Minecraft for adults.”

Which is when I quick started googling architecture schools.  I kinda like the look of Benedictine’s program — nice balance of real art and real engineering courses (you have to dig up the student handbook-catalog to see the whole program laid out — wish they’d stick the course of study up on the website directly).  By nightfall her father was already giving her the talk about how if she wanted to be an architect she’d need to spend a summer framing houses.  It is possible the parents can be a little intense at times.  But he’s right, of course.  I pointed out she’d end up wickedly fit, and SuperHusband added she’d end up with a killer tan.  The latter seemed to pique her interest.

We’re on day two of the SketchUp marathon, and if nothing else, she’s found a way to pass a long and uneventful post-op recovery.  Whether it turns into a profession or not, it’s good for a teen to discover she can teach herself genuine adult professional skills.

File:Vista sketchup dell'ingresso al museo del Castello Sforzesco..jpg

Sample of some SketchUp art by BennedettaG, courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 3.0.  L.’s drawings contain more water features.  We are not building water features, FYI.  Nor arches.  

In other news: The boy made it to his apartment in France despite getting delayed and re-routed.  I was pretty proud when I learned he’d managed to get himself and two other beleaguered travelers across Paris to catch the last TGV of the night to their destination city — complete with standing his ground with the evasive SNCF employee who was reluctant to let foreigners know national secrets about catching trains.  (Eventually a supervisor showed up and insisted the minion answer questions because it was obvious the boy wasn’t going to leave until he was assisted, and the supervisor wanted to go home for the night.  Mr. Boy reports all the other Parisians were quite helpful, there was just that one throwback from the days before the French discovered that “customer service” is a thing that can help draw customers to your tourist-centered economy.)

Is it nerve-wracking wondering if your sweet little baby whom you swear was only born five minutes ago is going to have to find a place to sleep in a strange city late at night?  Sure.  But sooner or later, a kid has to learn these arts.  And he had the sense to know that if you arrive at your destination at midnight, you scrap the plan to walk to your apartment and hail a cab instead.   When you let your kids practice the adult skills, they start developing the adult instincts.  It is good.

Nature Builds on Grace

So imagine for a moment that in the space of two weeks you learn that your kid has a potentially life-threatening (but otherwise probably benign) tumor in her heart, and then you travel out of town to get it removed via open-heart surgery, and then you come home after and basically you’re done.*  In two weeks.

That’s crazy.  Far too crazy to be eligible for fiction, what with no foreshadowing, no crises, and a shocking denouement in which you get home and have to forbid your kid to clean her room, until you finally break down after a couple hours and let her clean her room.

Also it can’t be fiction because everyone was fine.  A little edgy, sure, definitely some adrenaline happened.  Garden-variety hospital snafus happened (ex: The Night of the Beeping Monitors). There was sunburn during the lead-up to the climax, and also my sister sitting alone on the beach nobly guarding my phone, which was actually with me in the beach parking lot talking to the insurance people. But mostly everything was fine.

Truth: While we were busy with our dramatic medical incident, many friends were enduring much worse suffering.  That is, if by “worse” you mean people-actually-died ‘n stuff.

Since there can therefore be no riveting memoir, here’s my how-to quick guide on How to Throw a Successful Medical Crisis in Just Two Weeks!

 

1.  Try to recruit about a thousand people to pray for you.  If you do this, then your most anxiety-prone child of the bunch can be the one who needs to have her sternum cracked and her heart sliced open, and it’ll be fine.  By “a thousand” what I mean is: The actual, literal number 1,000.  That’s my ballpark estimate of how many seriously praying people were on this job.  Do that.  You want these people.  What they do matters.

2. Happen to invite the exact right relatives to come stay with you.  Try to get them to arrive for vacation the day before you go in to receive the shocking diagnosis.  Whom to invite?  The ones who keep the house clean, provide competent medical advice, have a couple cousins of just the right ages and personalities to provide 24/7 emotional support for the kids, and who are restless enough to keep everyone busy with activities so you don’t have much time to sit around dreading things.

2a.  Dessert.  The children insist you want to invite the relatives who firmly believe in running out to the store to buy three boxes of brownie mix, because there weren’t any brownies in the house.  I say if you do the dishes, vacuum, and wash the sheets before you leave . . . you make all the brownies you want, I can be healthy again after you go home.

3.  Go to the beach.  Oh, you just want to sit around googling statistics about rare surgical procedures?  That’s why you arranged for your sister to show up: Because she is going to take you to the beach, and once you’ve viewed one excision of a right ventricular mass you’ve viewed them all.  Go to the beach. Your kid is gonna have a very boring and painful summer once surgery happens.  For goodness sake go to the beach.

Backlit tree with egrets at sunset.
Sunset at the rental house on John’s Island. It’s hard to be stressed here.

4. Comparative Advantage for the win.  So you are going to ask all your friends with relevant experience for their advice, and then you will take it.  One of the things you’ll learn is that there are different types of work for different people at different times.

  • The aunt who is perfectly capable of watching your healthy kids is the person who needs the power of attorney so she can do her thing and not need to call you at just the wrong time.
  • The ICU nurse who has gotten your kid stable post-op, and she is not tired, and she is one-on-one with your kid, is the person who should stay up all night after surgery watching your kid while you go to the hotel and get as much sleep as you can.
  • The spouse who does better on disrupted sleep should take night shift in the step-down unit.
  • The spouse who does better at asking hard questions and won’t be intimidated by the platoon of physicians descending on your room during rounds should do day shift.
  • The people who cook astonishingly good food available at local restaurants should feed you during shift change.
Dinner at Fuel. Tourist tip if you’re ever in Charleston: King Street is for people who like normal food. MUSC neighborhood is for people who feel cheated if the taco is just a regular taco with no purple cabbage on it.

5.  A sane parent is a priceless treasure. There is no substitute for a parent who is willing to do whatever it takes to support a child in a medical crisis.  Thus more sides to the shape of parental-sanity:

(A) If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to do the whatever it takes when the need arises.

(B) Whatever it takes includes doing some hard things, but not all the hard things.  If you don’t have to be there doing a thing, go do something that makes you better able to do the things only you can do.

So yeah: I totally made a teenager deliver me my good cruiser so I could go on a bike ride when it was my turn to get out and get some fresh air.  Yes, the spouse and I got out for couple-time during shift change, so we could see daylight, talk to each other without interruptions, eat something good and be ready to go back in for more.

 

Lawn by the ER at MUSC
If your kid kicks you out of her room because she doesn’t want to smell your heated-up frozen dinner, then go lie down in green pastures on the lawn by the ER. It’s okay to take pleasure in good things even when your kid just had major-major surgery.

6.  You can just be real about the situation.  Back to that whole 1,000-person prayer team:  Yes, the SuperHusband and I, and everyone else, were worried and scared.  Left to my own devices, not only could I worry about this child’s impending doom, I could also conjure up scenarios in which other children met tragic fates while we were all distracted by the one having the official crisis.  Drowning? Fatal car accident?  Nobody’s safe!  Ever!

Nobody is ever safe.  Our kid came through surgery just fine, and other people were receiving bad news.  Our days were getting better and better while other people’s lives were getting worse and worse.  It’s a fallen world.  You don’t have to pick a single All-Purpose Mood that somehow perfectly matches the gravity of the situation, because the truth is that the situation is complicated, and some really good things are happening and so are some bad things.  So just whatever.  Don’t feel beholden to the Feelings Police.

7.  Eternity is for real.  The thought of my kid dying is unbearable.  Also: It could happen on my watch.  Indeed, the expected death rate for my children is 100%, so unless we all die in the same train wreck, some of us get to be bereaved.

This is awful.  Believing in God doesn’t take away the intense grief that comes with losing someone you love.

But here’s what it does do: It means you aren’t hanging all your faith on doctors.  You can be sensible and do practical things to try to ensure the best odds possible on your kid’s survival, but the weight of Everything Forever And Ever Amen doesn’t hang on your shoulders, and it doesn’t hang on the doctors’ shoulders.  When you know that God has everything under control, you don’t have to be in a non-stop panic, frantically trying to save your kid from eternal nothingness.

You ask God to spare you the suffering, and hopefully He spares you the suffering.  But you also know that the separation of death is temporary, and no matter how bad things get in this life, no matter how black your grief, no matter how much your life sinks into the abyss of loss if the worst should happen, it isn’t the end of the story.

And then if your kid’s not dead and actually she’s recovering pretty well, you can leave her to the spouse who has day shift and get out for fresh air and sanity.

Green sea grass with sailboats on the water in the distance.
View of the marsh and estuary from the Lockwood Drive greenway.
Concrete walk along The Battery, Charleston, SC, with house and palmetto trees.
The Battery, where cars are as slow as the bicycles that pull over to let faster traffic pass.

 

*It’s not done until Pathology says it’s done . . . but we’re not going there right now.

Can Goodness Fix Abuse?

In conversation surrounding Simcha Fisher’s piece on why the Fr. Luke Reese criminal trial is something the community needs to know about, a related topic came up: What role do victims play in their abuse?

For some perspective, Fr. Reese is charged with carrying out an 18-hour ordeal in which, at its peak, he dragged his wife in front of the altar (Fr. Reese is a married priest, yes the Catholic Church has them) and beat her there.

There are no counter-charges that Mrs. Reese was in some way abusing her husband and he was merely physically defending himself.  This is not a case of brawling.  This is assault and battery.

And yet — and the argument is even more deeply entrenched in cases of emotional abuse — some people labor under the idea that abusive behavior is “provoked” by the victim.

This is false.

Why the confusion?

We know a few things about healthy relationships:

  • You can make your relationship stronger by being kind, considerate, and generous.
  • You can help each other grow in virtue and avoid sin by making an effort to avoid tempting yourself and others.

So, for example, if you want to get along better with your workmates, greeting them cheerfully and completely your work promptly can help you all form a better team.

If you and your date are determined to remain chaste, choosing to avoid actions the other finds alluring can make it easier to abstain.

If you and your neighbor want to live on good terms, observing quiet hours can make it easier to get along.

These things work when everyone involved wants a healthy relationship.

It is the nature of abuse to try to pretend there is a “good reason” for the abuser’s behavior.  But there isn’t.

It is normal to get a little frustrated at other people’s faults.  A normal married couple might argue over who should do the dishes.  A normal married couple will not physically assault each other over who should do the dishes.

That’s what makes abuse different from normal behavior: The action or reaction in no way matches the circumstances.

How to Have a Better Marriage

If you and your spouse are both desiring a happier, more joyful marriage, there are things you can do to help with that.  You can pay attention to your spouse’s preferences, and find little ways to show consideration.  Maybe that is by taking on a chore your spouse finds tedious, or by giving attention to some detail that other people might not care about, but which especially pleases your spouse.

She likes tulips not roses, so you bring her tulips.  He hates cilantro, so you serve it on the side.  Of course you do these things, because you love each other and you want to please each other.  You might go so far as to choose an outfit that your spouse particularly admires (and which you agree is becoming on you and fitted to the occasion), even though left to your own devices you yourself wouldn’t spend so much time on your appearance.

An abusive person is not abusive because you brought the wrong flower or served the wrong meal.  An abusive person isn’t going to be “cured” by your selecting a nicer outfit next time.   Healthy people don’t beat their spouse over failing to coordinate the day’s plans, or failing to keep the house clean, or failing to make the children settle down.  Healthy people don’t kidnap, rape, and beat their spouse even over suspected infidelity.

Healthy Responses to Very Bad Behavior

If you thought your spouse was cheating on you, healthy, proportionate reactions might include:

  • Asking your spouse to explain his or her behavior.
  • Attending counseling, with or without your spouse (or both).
  • Asking your spouse to cut ties with a specific person he or she committed adultery with previously.
  • Refraining from intercourse if there is reason to be concerned about sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Insisting your spouse be transparent about internet and social media use.
  • Considering whether a civil divorce or other legal action is a necessary way to handle the fallout from marital infidelity.

Some of these actions are very serious responses to very serious concerns.  None of them involve assaulting your spouse.

 

File:Historic image of Rod Liddle.jpg

Image courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0.

How To Have Competent Young Adults

So Saturday the internet went out, and here’s what happened next:  Mr. Boy, now officially all graduated and legal and I guess technically Mr. Young Man, says to my husband, “Would you like me to clean the house, or would you like me to get on the phone with AT&T and get our service fixed?”

Now he does not have superhuman powers, so it still took until Tuesday for AT&T to actually show up.  But they did, and the friendly service guy, who is not at fault for AT&T’s corporate lapses, worked with Mr. Young Man to figure out what had happened and get it fixed.  (It was them not us . . . my IT Boy Man would have fixed it if it were us.)

Here is another thing that happened on Saturday: My 16-year-old and I got into a huge fight about the state of our front yard, eventually came to a truce-type-moment, and she proceeded to carry out a massive landscaping renovation.  First thing Monday she phone around to mulch dealers, got the best price on pinestraw, calculated how much she’d need, drove the truck (and I drove the other truck) out to pick it up, loaded the truck with a bazillion bales of pinestraw, and came home and made our yard look 10,000 times better . . . and then pressured-washed the driveway.

File:FEMA - 7305 - Photograph by Liz Roll taken on 11-16-2002 in Tennessee.jpgFile:Blithewold Mansion - Water Garden.jpg

Our yard Before & After, as visualized by Wikimedia.  [Public Domain and CC 3.0  Daderot at en.wikipedia respectively.]

 

So how do you get yourself some teenagers who are able to take the initiative and do responsible things?

By letting them take the initiative and learn to do responsible things.

For the boy, I’d say the turning point was letting him unschool 7th grade science.  Every day he was required to read or do some kind of science thing, and make a note of what that was.   I knew I could count on him to educate himself in that area, and indeed he did. Mostly he read technology websites that year.  In later years we bought him computer pieces for his birthday or Christmas when he wanted to build or re-build a computer.  By spring of 12th grade he’d landed his first regular IT job.  He’s 18 and pretty much already has a profession, because we let him do the thing he was interested in.  We didn’t send him to lessons or anything complicated.  We let him experiment and take risks and just do the thing.  There was a lot of trial-and-error involved, but it was his trial, not ours, and now he knows how to avoid the errors.

I’ve already documented some of E.’s artful adventures.  Note that nearly all the things from this beautiful backyard patio area have now been moved around for other decorating needs.   Having a child who can paint means never knowing where your paintbrushes are (except when they are left sitting by the kitchen sink).  The reason the girl is confident she can take on a front-yard renovation is because she’s been let loose with the weed-whacker and the leaf-blower and the pressure-washer many times before, even though she doesn’t always do it the way I wish she would.  (See: Bitter Argument Saturday Morning, Why Did You Chop Down That Oak Sapling?)

Now notice here that my IT guy did not help with the lawn.  Note that my lawn girl did not lift a finger to fix the internet (shout-out to the grandparents who pay for her data plan . . . she had internet while I didn’t, ha.)  There will come a time when they are older and they’ll have to take on a certain number of big projects that they don’t particularly care to do.  At 16 & 18, a realistic expectation is that your kids will go big and deep on the things that are most important to them.

But that’s a good start.  If they learn in their teens that they can take an interest in something, master all the skills, and be turning out professional-grade work as a result?  I think that’s about where they need to be.

So parents,  if you are terrified of the mess your kids are going to make, or you are tempted to over-program and over-schedule their lives, or you worry that your kids aren’t “well-rounded” because they tend to focus mostly on one or two types of interests and not ALL THE THINGS, relax.

Set a few boundaries, sure.  But mostly: Just let your kids do things.

 

Why We Homeschooled So Long

At The Washington Post: The decline of play in preschoolers — and the rise in sensory issues.  Reading this article was a moment of revelation for me.  Way back when #2 was about seven or so, I can remember walking down to the corner elementary school to play on the playground after hours, and we looked into one of the classrooms.  It looked ideal.  It practically called her name.  There was a wooden play kitchen, and child-sized tables, and loads of art supplies, and of course the wonderful playground just outside the big windows that filled the classroom with natural light.  For my little extrovert, this classroom was her people.

And I thought to myself: Maybe I should not be homeschooling this child.  Maybe I should send her to school.

Then I came to my senses: This was was the kindergarten classroom.  By the time you are seven, it’s rows of desks and standardized tests for you.  Not to mention we’d had dealings with one of the neighbor-kindergartners, and so we were acquainted with the long list of “reading words” that five-year-olds at the corner school were somehow expected to memorize and supposedly “read,” at an age when, developmentally, not all children are even capable of learning to read.  All four of my kids went on to become fluent, competent readers who read for both pleasure and information, but none of them would have been able to read that list of words at age five.  They were physically unable.  Since they were at home, instead of being embarrassed by their supposed stupidity, they received the kinds of pre-reading instruction that educational research shows actually helps.

Some of things that help are language-based — read-alouds and rhyming games and stuff like that.  Something else that helps kids learn to read is learning about the world.  This is important because you can’t make sense of words on a page if you have no idea what those words are referring to.  You won’t understand a scene taking place in a grocery store if you’ve never been to a grocery store.  You won’t understand a nature scene if you’ve never been out in nature.  Playing teaches some important reading skills. It teaches you about the physical world, because you are physically doing stuff. It teaches you about human interactions, because you are creating scenarios and living them out.  Playing teaches you to think, because all play requires imagination and initiative and problem-solving.

***

(If you want to understand the great Maria Montessori vs. Charlotte Mason wrestling match, the missing piece is this: Charlotte Mason’s audience had access to the real world; Maria Montessori’s students were kids who would otherwise have spent their day alone in a tiny working-class flat while their parents put in 14-hour shifts at the local factory.  Much of Montessori is about providing Mason when Mason can’t be had.  At The Register I’ve got up a piece that is an example of that kind of adaptation, in this case for teens.)

***

I’m still a big believer in homeschooling.  I agree with Ella Frech’s philosophy of education.  For various reasons, though, my kids at the moment like school.  As a homeschooler I always involved my kids in decisions about their education. I’d propose some possibilities for the year ahead, and the kids would give me feedback on what they wanted to learn or which approach they preferred of the choices I put on the table.  I was open to suggestions if they had ideas different than what I was planning.  When I held firm on a curriculum choice, I had solid reasons that I could explain to everyone, kids and spouse alike, and they could see why that particular choice was the one we needed to pursue.

So each of the kids, at various points and for various reasons, deciding to go to school has been a natural extension of that philosophy: If I was open to you choosing a different science book, why would I not also be open to you choosing a different science teacher?

The WaPo article, though, underscores for me why the youngest any child of mine has gone to school was fifth grade — and at that point, she happened to choose our local parish school where the early-grades teachers seem to have a pretty strong grasp of what early-grades learners need.  When you are little, you needs hands-on and interactive experiences.  Homeschooling let us do that.  Inasmuch as I’m happy with the school decisions we have in place right now, it is because the schools are, in their various ways, providing the bigger-kid versions of that for our children.

Anyhow, all this to say: Let your kids play.

 

Related: On the Forming of Young Christians

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Not my children, but mine play this game too.  Photo by Abi Blu, courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0.

So How’s It Going, Jen? (Spring 2018 Edition)

I’m about a year overdue on a personal update.  Short version: It’s good.  Very, very good.

How good is it?  So good that if I don’t work and workout enough every day, I get restless.

And that’s about all there is to say.  About me, anyhow.

***

I thought I’d post an update now because the last of my homeschoolers is starting school next week, and that can make people think, “Something must be wrong,” or, “The mother must be burned out,” or stuff like that.  My close homeschooling friends are aware that L. & I were due for a change of format, and we looked into creating a multi-day hybrid school (which may yet happen a different year); both of us seem to do better when we’re working with a group of friends rather than just the two of us solo.  But I would have gladly transitioned that direction and kept on homeschooling.

What happened, though, is that A.’s 6th grade teacher got to talking about schools for next year (for A.). My 8th-grade homeschooler L. & I did the advance work scoping out a school the teacher suggested we look into, and L. loved the school.  It seemed ridiculous to tell a kid that she shouldn’t try a thing she really wants to do, that looks like it could be a good option for her in terms of her total formation, and which was a realistic option for our family.  Starting at the midterm in 8th grade (at the administration’s invitation) seemed like a wise idea, since it allows L. to give the school a try before the pressure of high school credit- and GPA-tracking kicks in.

Something fun: We were nervous about the school’s placement exams.  L. is a super-bright, extremely observant and creative kid, with an undeniable knack for problem-solving, but test-taking is not her strong suit.  She’s an outside-the-box thinker, and she doesn’t excel at working under pressure.  The school (small, church-operated) is not equipped to provide extensive learning support services, so they assess students prior to admitting them to make sure the students are coming in on grade level.

We were a little worried, because I grade that child’s math tests.  I know she can solve the problems (because she can explain how to solve them, teach other people, etc.), but her tests don’t always show it.  She sat through a day of 8th grade classes and said she was confident she could do the work, and I trusted her judgement on that — but wasn’t sure the tests would agree with her assessment.

Much to her surprise, even though she thought she did poorly on the math exam (and perhaps she did), she placed firmly at grade level.   Double surprise: She placed in a 12th+ grade level for reading comprehension.  (Spelling . . . not so much. But we knew that was coming.  Not a show-stopper.)

Sooo . . . guess that homeschooling thing was going okay.

She’s excited.  I’m happy for her.  And now I’m figuring out what my new occupation is going to be.

Here’s a nice hiking photo from France last summer.  By “Here’s a nice hiking photo  . . .” we mean, “Why yes, it’s going very well, thank you.”

Two Bits of Common Sense Eclipse Safety for Kids

I live on the pending eclipse path, so How To Keep Your Kids From Going Blind is suddenly a topic around here.

First thing to know: The hazard of the eclipse is if you look at the sun.  There aren’t deadly Eclipse Rays that come out and attack while you are napping in your hammock in the shade.  The trouble, of course, is thats it’s really unusual to see the sun get all blocked up by the moon, and so people who would otherwise never stare at the sun might suddenly take an interest.  Staring at the sun is always bad for you.

(Your pets, in contrast, probably aren’t going to take up astronomy as a hobby on Monday afternoon, unless I suppose that’s something you’ve caught them at before.  My pets never stare at the sun. They mostly stare at the back door.  And meat.  If there’s a Meat Eclipse, my dog will be watching that one closely.)

So anyway, back to your kids.

#1 Practice Using Your Safety Glasses Ahead of Time

You got yourself NASA-approved glasses, of course, and you’ve read all about sun-viewing safety.  Now practice.  You do not want to be in the middle of a very short once-in-a-lifetime event and your kids are like “I can’t make mine work!”  “I can’t see!” “These itch!”  Practice.

#2 Not All Children Can Be Trusted to Wear Their Safety Glasses

If your child is not mature enough to be counted on, skip the viewing altogether.  Just don’t go there.  If your child is young enough to be oblivious you don’t even have to tell them there’s a viewing option.  You can just let your young children know that the sun is going to be covered up by the moon, so it’s going to get dark outside in the middle of the day, which is nifty.

They’ll of course want to see it get dark (but they won’t want to go bed).  So pick a room with a window that doesn’t face towards the sun during your eclipse time of day.  Set the kids up so they can watch it get dark out that window. Stream the eclipse on your computer so that they can compare the progress of the eclipse with conditions outside.

For more info: NASA has all your eclipse enjoyment science needs covered hereFood, drink, and lounge chairs you’ll have to sort out for yourself.

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Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain]

Location Notes – Traveling with Kids in France

After a busy week in metro-Paris with excellent WiFi but limited free time, we returned to connectivity-purgatory in Strasbourg.  I started this post while I waited for the laundry to dry, because the local laundromat had way better internet access than our hotel did, but apparently we don’t generate enough dirty laundry to support my blogging habit.  I’m now home and finishing up these comments, and then over the next few weeks I’ll do some more photo-blogging of the epic vacation.

Meanwhile, here are some quick notes on the types of places we’ve stayed, and what’s been good for kids, and how the logistics all worked out:

Location #1 – Rental house in a large village outside of Colmar.  The house was beautiful but fragile.  That was fine for our older kids, but with little ones look for something durable.  There was a courtyard, but it contained a fish pond and a barn with farm machinery — lovely spot for grown-ups, not great very young people.  The village was quiet and equipped with basics like a bakery and a playground, so for older kids who could roam at will, it was super.

Being out in the countryside was ideal for visiting around the region, because we didn’t have to fight in-town traffic getting in and out.  If your goal is to see sights outside of a metro area, I think looking for a village location is the way to go.

Location #2 – Apartment in downtown Chamonix.  I had no idea how much I would love Chamonix and the surrounding area!  In addition to being stunningly beautiful (because: Alps), the people, mostly tourists and expats, are the most content visitors I’ve seen anywhere.  Our little apartment was perfect for us, because it let us be right in the middle of everything, but again it would have been rough with small children.   If you need space for your kids to run around, get a house at the edge of town or in one of the many villages up and down the valley.  However, parking in Chamonix is tight, so if you mostly want to be in the town itself, stay in town.

Note that the underground parking garage that came with our apartment, typical, is not suited to anything larger than a modest sedan.  If you are traveling with a larger vehicle, discuss the parking situation with your landlord or hotel-owner before you make reservations.

Location #3 – Bed and breakfast at the edge of the suburban train lines outside of Paris.  I have mixed opinions about my decision to not stay in the city when visiting the city.  What I loved: The restful, friendly, calm, beautiful location in the countryside.  Our hosts had games for kids to play in the small-but-beautiful garden, there was room to stretch out, and overall I think for our kids it was the better choice.  However, I did not anticipate how hard it would be to get the kids up and out in the morning to catch a train, we ran into various logistical challenges, and commuting does reduce the amount of time you have in the city.  On the other hand, passing through the burbs and being on a commuter line is a cultural education in itself, and one I’m glad we had.

It was definitely less stressful for me to never have to drive in Paris, and to be able to pick my preferred train station along the RER line.  I’d say that an apartment in the city would work better if either:

  • Your kids are calm and quiet and do well hanging out in a small indoor space together.
  • You have enough adults to take the crazy youngsters out as-needed.

Look for a place near a playground and bakery if you’re going to stay in town with kids.

A couple notes about Paris:

1. I’d forgotten how BIG the city is.  Getting from sight to sight, or realizing you need to go find lunch, or a toilet, takes a ton of time.  If visiting many sights is your big priority, stay in town and allow a lot of time in town.

2. The big museums were absolutely packed with people  Security lines were long, so coming and going was not an option.  The Louvre and Musee d’Orsay were both well worth the hassle (for us), but we skipped lower-priority attractions because a person can only stand in so many lines.  Lesser known sites were not a problem at all.

Location #4 – Hotel in downtown Strasbourg.  We booked the “family” room at a small hotel (not a chain) near the train station.  It had two twins pushed together to make a king-sized bed on the floor, and then a set of bunk beds.  This is a bit of a cultural difference, I think: American hotels will overlook the part where your family crams itself into a single hotel room with a pile of sleeping bags for the kids; European hotels expect you to match the official sleeping capacity, but they offer extra beds so you can do that.

Strasbourg was the right sized city for us.  I could set the boy (age 17) free to wander at will without concerns about him getting lost — if you hit a canal, you’re leaving downtown, very simple system.  The downtown area is mostly pedestrian-only, and contains all the tourist things (stores, restaurants, markets, museums, old beautiful buildings) within a walkable distance.

Our location near the train station was handy for departure day, because I could turn in the car the evening before, and then we could just walk our mountain of luggage down the block.  It was, however, not a quiet location at night.  Given that the A/C system is called “Open Your Windows and Turn on a Fan,” let’s just say that we know an awful lot about what happens at night in a bustling European metropolis.

The big downside to a hotel, though, is that there is zero cooking to be done.  Unlike American hotels, where a coffee maker is standard in every room and a mini-fridge is very easy to come by, there is nothing, whatsoever, in terms of provision for eating in your room.  Breakfast is simple enough to put together (see “French bakery”), but lunch and dinner got expensive, even with trying to favor places that weren’t that expensive.

It was, however, much simpler to check out of the hotel on departure day than to clean and vacate an apartment.

If I had to do it again, I’d get an apartment for most of the Strasbourg leg (or whereever), and just book a hotel room next to the train station or airport for departure day.

City vs. Countryside Touring

I was confirmed in my decision to separate the countryside and city legs of the Alsace trip, because yes, driving in a European city, even a small one, is not fun.  It’s complicated and time-intensive and depends on a knowledge of the city that you as a visitor just aren’t going to possess.  If you want to get out into the rural areas, though, you do need a vehicle.  If you’re doing something like staying in Paris and you just want to make a one day trip to Versailles, no problem — transit is set up to accommodate that.  But otherwise, know that you need a car out of the city, do not want a car in the city, and you don’t just hop in the car and zip off.

There are, however, a load of options for renting vehicles.   So if you booked an in-city vacation and find yourself getting restless, ask around for ideas on how to escape for a bit.

Two children walking down a tree-lined alley in a Paris park.