Thursday, March 29, 2012

Momsensical: Are school projects for the kids or the parents?

Published on KSL.com (click HERE for the link)
Published for the Cross Timbers Gazette (click HERE for the link)

“This is definitely going to be the best one!” my third-grade daughter announced confidently. She had just spent several hours on a model of the solar system and was gluing on the final sparkly flourishes.

Ah, the optimism of youth!

Managing kids’ expectations can be tricky, but I gave it my best shot by explaining how hard all the kids in her class must have worked on their solar systems. For the most part, I assured her, the projects were likely to be equally awesome.

On open house night, my daughter grabbed my hand and enthusiastically guided me through the crowds of parents and kids until we arrived at the third-grade hallway. I saw the solar system models before she did and gave serious thought to activating the nearest fire alarm. Sure, this may have caused mass confusion and a possible trampling or two, but anything seemed better than letting my daughter see the displays.

I felt like I had stepped into a children’s science museum. One of the displays even featured a built-in light to illuminate its perfectly formed spheres. There is no way on Earth (or any other planet in our solar system) that third-graders had built the majority of those models.

So it wasn’t even a little bit surprising when my daughter announced dejectedly that hers was definitely the worst one.

What really got me is that she was right. On the surface, that is. But she had to understand that her comparison was one of apples to oranges — i.e. a project designed and created primarily by a 9-year-old up against dozens of projects designed and created primarily by adults. I did my best to explain this to her without belittling her classmates’ parents, who had clearly given these projects their best efforts.

My daughter’s teacher seemed thrilled with the models, which led me to believe that she basically expected parents to take a leading role in their creation. We are fairly new to the school and I’m still familiarizing myself with its culture, so I came home and reread the assignment details carefully to see if I had missed something about this being a “family project.” I hadn’t.

Therein lay the problem.

My daughter’s solar system model is prominently displayed in our home, where several visitors have praised its awesomeness. I know this was a lesson for my daughter that life simply isn’t always fair — and I’m not opposed to my kids learning such lessons — but I’m still hoping that this praise helps boost her confidence when it comes time to tackle her next school project.

As a former educator, I understand that there are two sides to this issue. Teachers have no more control over what happens at home than parents do over the types of assignments that get sent home. But since we all love these kids and want what’s best for them, a discussion about what could help level the playing field might be in order.

As food for thought, here are a few questions:

What do teachers honestly expect will or should happen when projects get sent home? Should students be required to complete a certain percentage of a project? If parents take the lead role on projects, how do teachers evaluate what students are capable of? Should bonding between parent and child be considered as a factor? And what of students who receive little or no assistance from adults in the home?

Most importantly, what is truly in the best interest of the students?

Fully recognizing that every school, family, teacher and child is unique and that there is no one right answer, I would be interested in hearing perspectives from both parents and teachers on this issue.

Time to weigh in …

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Momsensical: A gazillion dollars per kid

Published on KSL.com (click HERE for the link)


I've read estimates about how much money it takes to raise a kid these days. Without looking it up, it seems like the number is somewhere in the gazillion dollar range. It’s enough to make you think twice before having, say, five kids.

I always assumed that most of the money was spent on big-ticket items like hospital bills from actually having your kids. Or doctor bills when the ear of one of your kids gets halfway ripped off in a wrestling match by another one of your kids ("It was an accident, Mom! I swear!”). Or mortgage payments. Or college expenses. Or food, since if you're any kind of a parent at all you'll probably want to feed your kids.

Then I became a mom. And like all of my pre-mom assumptions, this one proved overly simplistic.

The big-ticket items, I have come to discover, are in fact thousands of little-ticket items that add up to at least half of the gazillion dollars per kid. They sneak into your house by the hundreds in children's backpacks, are handed to you at school events, practices and rehearsals, arrive via email and snail mail and voice mail. They are delivered in such a way that they distract you into thinking how super cute or artistic or creative they are — until you realize that every last one of them asks you to write a check. 

Field trips. Fundraisers. Book orders. School lunch accounts. Driver’s ed (heaven help us all!). Test fees. Fundraisers. Banquets and graduations (how many grades will my kids graduate from?). Meals for off-campus events. Fundraisers. Uniforms and registration and equipment fees. Lessons of all varieties. Recitals and costumes. Team and individual pictures for every blasted one of these activities. And fundraisers (in case I forgot to mention them).

Day after day after day after day.

It.

Never.

Ends.

There are months when I’d rather have an extra mortgage payment — at least I'd know exactly what's coming.

I can’t in good conscience deny my kids the means of developing their talents on their journey toward figuring out who they are and their place in the world. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that giving them unlimited resources for unrestricted activities (which I can’t afford anyway) would be equally detrimental.

So I’m forever trying to strike the right balance. Results vary and I often change my mind, so I hope and often pray that good intentions carry sufficient weight in the end.

I pay the bills, but my supportive and wonderfully frugal husband likes to review finances, make helpful budgeting suggestions and the like. Since he brings home almost all of the bacon, I figure it's perfectly acceptable for him to put in his two cents. As long as it’s not too often.

On one such occasion, my ill-fated husband made a teensy weensy error in judgment. After a long day wherein I had written at least 4,792 kid-related checks, he looked over our finances and actually asked me (yes, out loud), "Where does all the money go?"

I handed him the checkbook and left the room, leaving the rest of that evening's budget reconciliation to him.

Here's what's crazy. If you were to ask my husband, he swears that the checkbook whizzed past his ear right before the door slammed behind me.

OK, so maybe his version is slightly more accurate. But for the record, I missed on purpose. My husband is a pretty swell guy.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

When good kids go rogue . . . at school

Published on KSL.com (click HERE for the link)

My husband recently called from an out-of-state business trip to tell me about a phone call he had just received from our middle school principal. Evidently, our son had been involved in “horseplay that got out of hand” and was given two before-school detention periods as a result.

Details were still pending, but the very word detention sent my mom angst through the roof. I blathered on to my husband about where we had gone wrong and questioned the disciplinary actions taken by the administration and fretted about the suddenly very uncertain future of our son.

“Honey, our kid’s gone rogue!” I blubbered in a highly logical kind of way.

After using requisite phrases such as, “I completely understand” and “You’re exactly right,” my husband told me the following story.

It seems that a group of kids from my husband’s middle school (mostly nerds like my husband, who proudly owns that title) decided that the library was a perfect after-lunch hangout. The librarian was a gentleman of ample girth, thick glasses and a particularly low tolerance for shenanigans.

The year started off with an open-access library policy but soon became invitation-only as the kids’ shenanigans reached epic proportions. Even my husband — who swears it was guilt by association only — was eventually banned.

Evicting kids can result in unintended consequences. For example, the ousted kids might start pulling obnoxious stunts — like banging on the doors and making faces through the windows — directly outside the library.

The librarian took great pains to cover the windows so as to block out panoramic views of noses and lips squished on the glass, but the incessant door pounding remained problematic. Driven to absolute desperation, he took to flinging the library doors open at random times and charging down the hall after the perpetrators, who always eluded capture.

According to my husband, it was the librarian’s repeated performance of this daring, gravity-defying act that earned him the nickname Water Buffalo.

The Water Buffalo’s penchant for opening the library door is also what gave my husband his brilliant idea. He had somehow learned how to rig a cup full of water above a doorframe in such a way that it would tip over and spill onto whoever was unlucky enough to open the door.

Never in the history of the world had a more perfect opportunity presented itself to a middle school kid. My husband simply could not resist.

On the day my husband set up his contraption, ruckus outside of the library reached its zenith. Eventually, in a fit of rage, the poor librarian hurled the door open.

My husband still remembers watching every detail as if in slow motion: the cup tipping over, the water pouring directly onto the librarian’s head and glasses, the discombobulated librarian reaching for his glasses with one hand and swiping at the water on his face with the other, the laughter coming from down the hall and around corners.

After his few seconds of triumph, my husband felt terrible about it. He still does.

In contrast to my husband’s prank, my son’s horseplay (caught on the school’s security cameras) was fairly insignificant. Had there been cameras to immortalize my husband’s mischief, I’m guessing he would have received more than two before-school detentions.

I still wish that my son hadn’t participated in his own shenanigans. And I will never completely stop worrying about how my kids will turn out.

But if my husband can perpetrate such a mean trick during middle school and still turn out to be the absolute best man I know, there’s hope for my kids.

Lots of it.