So much has been written about meal planning.  If you haven’t been following the discourse, you might want to begin over at my friend Laura’s place to read what it’s all about.

Meal planning is like a micro-whole world all by itself.  You’d be surprised at the many web rings, online resources, printables, techniques and methods, and other cool menu planning ideas floating around out there.

From the simplest of your problems like grocery shopping to the biggest issues have answers on the internet. You can get all the information you need and complete all kinds of transactions online without even stepping out of your home. We recommend that you visit the following website,, to get to know about a great trading program, called the Bitcoin Trader, which will help you make digital money from the comfort of your home.

But what if you aren’t really much of a planner, much less a meal-planner?  What ideas can you take away from meal planning, without having to go whole hog on the idea?

If you want to dip your toes in the water, without having to jump all the way in, try my baby steps approach to meal planning and see where it leads…who knows, you just might get hooked.

Here goes:

Step 1. Start by deciding what’s for dinner tonight. Don’t know? Head to the fridge or pantry now and figure it out. Write it down. Hang it on the fridge. How’s that for easy?

[You can stop here if you like. But, if you are feeling courageous, move on to Step 2.]

Step 2. Repeat Step 1 every day this week. Do it every morning, and hang it on the fridge. How hard was that?

[Don’t look now, you’re already planning.]

Step 3. Next week, plan all 7 nights of dinner on the same day. Pick any day you like, but shopping day works best for a lot of people.  Example: when you return from grocery shopping, write down what you plan to serve for the next 7 nights. Hang it on the fridge. Easy!

[Not perfect. But, we’ll get there…]

Step 4. Repeat Step 3 for several weeks. No jumping ahead. No cheating.

[Listen to this song repeatedly in the background as you wait.]

Step 5. Now, look back on the previous few weeks. Ask yourself this question: which meals did your family love, and which meals were a complete failure? Write only the ones you love on a piece of paper.

[Hide the list somewhere; you’ll need it again.]

Step 6.  Look back on the past few weeks again.  This time, ask yourself this: How many times did you run back to the store during the week to pick up things you forgot? If the answer is any number greater than 1, it’s time to move on to Step 7.

[Get ready, it’s a big step…]

Step 7. The next time you shop, BEFORE leaving the house, make a list of what you’d like to serve for dinner that week. Use your hidden recipe list as a guide to choosing dinners you can serve that week.  Then, head to the store, buying only what is needed for those recipes, plus any breakfast items, lunch foods, and household/personal stuff you need as well.

[I don’t want to overload you too quickly. Baby steps, remember? So, the last step for today…]

Step 8. Do that for a few weeks, then come back here for my next meal planning post. I’ll link to it here eventually. Meanwhile, go subscribe to my feed so you don’t miss it.

Let me know what you think so far…there’s a comment area for rants and raves, below.

[You already know that I stink at photography.  This yummy image really came from Free Digital Photos.]

The temps are dropping so that can only mean one thing…it’s time for all of those warm and comforting one-pot meals! Chili is quite possibly one of my favorites on cold days and, even though I live in Florida, I admit cooking it all year round.

I can’t take credit for this recipe because I tore it from a newspaper way back in 1993!  I have long since memorized it, modified it, and shared it with countless people…and I am still asked for this chili recipe over and over again when people taste the delicious goodness coming from my  6 quart imitation-Le Creuset bubbling on the stove top.

I dare you to find a better chili recipe than this one…

Here you go…

Best Chili Ever

(originally called, “A Super Bowl of Chili”)

Heat 3 T of olive oil in a huge pot. Saute [at least] 3 cloves of garlic and a large, chopped onion inside.  Add approximately 2 pounds of ground beef, and brown it well.  Drain any fat off, only if you want to (I do).  Stir in a 28-ounce can of Italian-style tomatoes with the juice, and break up the tomatoes a bit.  Add a diced green pepper. Throw in the following dried spices: 2 t. cumin, 1 t. dried oregano (dried only), 2 T. of chili power, and a couple of bay leaves (again, dried, not fresh). You can also add a scant 1/4 t. of cayenne if you like it ~ I do!  Season with salt & pepper at this point, too. Cover and simmer on low heat for about 2 hours.  Then, add a couple of cans of kidney beans, with juice, and cook another 30 minutes or so.  Season again if needed. Yummy!

Variations, tips and substitutions:

  • Use only dried spices, really, here they are best.
  • Red or yellow peppers are great, too, but will sweeten it up a bit.
  • A handful of brown sugar is great here, but again, will sweeten it up a bit.
  • Substitute ground turkey, veggie (soy) crumbles, or any other meat product you like to eat.
  • Add extra beans (but adjust seasonings at the end).
  • Add yellow corn, black beans, or store-bought salsa at the end.
  • Top with anything: cheese, sour cream, chopped red or green onion, avocado chunks, or guacamole…….
  • For added nutrition, you can also add hidden veggies in here, such a frozen spinach leaves, frozen petite peas, carrot juice, or anything else…again, adjust seasonings at end.

Coquito (Egg Nog)

As promised, here is that fabulous Egg Nog recipe I talked about in a previous post.  It’s an outstanding alternative to traditional Egg Nog and contains a special, secret ingredient that gives it a yummy and really unexpected flavor when you take that first sip.  It’s a real family pleaser and sure to be a hit at your next party, too!

Note: The recipe uses canned and processed store ingredients, but feel free to make any homemade substitutions that you like.


  • 3 cans evaporated milk
  • 2 cans sweetened condensed milk
  • 3 cans cream of coconut (filter it first, removing any bits)
  • 1/2 gallon purchased or home-made Egg Nog
  • 2 T. cinnamon
  • 2 T. vanilla
  • 1 quart rum (spiced rum is best, may be omitted)

Chill, then enjoy!

If you are interested in making the egg nog yourself, instead of using store-bought, or would just prefer to sip a traditional nog, try this recipe to whip some up yourself.  It’s delicious all by itself!

Egg Nog

  • 6 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 2 c. milk
  • 1 cup brandy plus 1/4 rum (omit or adjust if using in coquito)
  • 1 T. vanilla
  • 2 C. whipping cream

Cook egg, sugar and milk over medium heat, stirring constantly, 18-20 minutes until mixture thickens. Remove from heat and stir in other ingredients. Chill. Serve and garnish with whipped cream, grated nutmeg, chocolate shavings, or anything else you like.

If you make it, let me know how you liked it!

What my child did for science this week

I know, I know.  I can tell exactly what you’re thinking. I read some of the homeschooling blogs and articles, too.  Like you, I sometimes cannot help but wonder what all of those lovely ladies and gentlemen are really doing in their homeschools, when they aren’t out taking photos and inserting them into blog posts and articles, that is.  I’m not judging – it’s just natural curiosity!

With that in mind, I thought you might enjoy taking a peek into what I sometimes do during a typical school week in my home – when I am not taking bad photos, blogging or writing articles, that is.

Today is your chance to take a glimpse into my school room!

By way of introduction, my children and I have many different books, curriculum products, web sites, software projects, and learning resources that we use all week long. Overall, we work very hard in our homeschool!   At the same time, we also get very creative, too.  Plus, I try to respond to their needs and interest levels by giving them projects that are both relevant and appeal to their special gifts and talents, too.  It all depends. We do a lot. But we get a lot back, too.  Homeschool can be challenging here, but it’s a lot of fun, too!

This week wasn’t a very typical week for me. I have been working with my book publisher this week, have been catching up on long overdue articles on my other web sites, have been helping several families solve their homeschooling problems in my state, I taught my last homeschooling co-op class of the year, and have also been attempting to complete a local holiday project with some of the other homeschooling families in my area.  Besides that, I have been trying to prepare my home for the holidays, trying to squeeze in some holiday shopping, have been shuttling college students to and from campuses, handling the details of a home business, dealing with sick children and all of the other things that mommies do during a typical week.  Did I also mention  homeschooling? Yes, I have been doing that, too!

So, this week was a particularly tough week, and still I managed to get it all done.  I use a very organized scheduling system that my family is able to follow, even when I am not 100% available to oversee all of the activities that take place here all at once.  Plus, like so many of you, I have an entire arsenal of goodies that I pull out for “just those times” when I haven’t the time nor the energy to be particularly creative.

Getting back to the “glimpse”, I thought you might enjoy seeing what one of my children did for science this week.  It isn’t anything earth-shattering, and certainly isn’t anything that many of you haven’t already thought of before. However, it was new for me, and was a relevant and appropriate activity for that particular child.  It worked for me and I was happy with the result.

Don’t be surprised when you see it (below)!  The project isn’t all that pretty, and it isn’t even very cleverly worded or designed, even though I am sure I could have done a much better job if I had the time and really tried a little bit harder.  But, it worked for me, with the time that I had on hand; plus, it worked well for the assigned child that I gave it to on Monday, and who successfully turned it in to me on Friday, after working hard on  it all week.

And isn’t that really our goal in homeschooling?  To teach a child something that is necessary and relevant and falls within our own value systems and what we have planned to accomplish with that particular child in a given year?  That was certainly my goal with this activity – to teach this child something about nutrition and to have him take a good look at the kinds of foods that are recommended for a child his age and size.

I think my project worked splendidly.  And by the end of the week, my child turned in a beautifully typewritten and illustrated response to my questions – bravo to him, and bravo to all of us for another successful homeschooling week!

I am posting this here because I want you to know that homeschooling isn’t just for rocket scientists and mathematical engineers.  It doesn’t always have to be the most complex and sophisticated thing you’ll ever do.  In homeschooling, whatever works for you, works for you.  And, this week, this is what worked for me.  Besides this project, this particular child also did his math, grammar, writing, history, French, art and physical activities.  This was only his science lesson.

So…without further ado, here is what I assigned in science (…and this is exactly as I assigned it, no changes have been made for your eyes only, this is a copy & paste of the handout that I gave my child on Monday…):

Science Project: NUTRITION

Day 1: Find newfood pyramid on the web. Try or other trustworthy site.  Draw your rendition of food pyramid on paper, making sure to label all parts.  Color it in and make it nice.

Day 2: Interpret the pyramid in writing. Write 1-3 paragraphs explaining the significance of the food pyramid, in everyday language for people to understand.  Try to include details about each section, and why each is important (or not) in its own way.

Day 3: Choose one area of the pyramid and zero in on the kinds of foods that fall within this category.  List some foods that would be included in this area.  Then, look through our cabinets and pantry to discover how many of these foods are in our home right now.  Make a list of the foods that we have here in our home that would be included in that category.

Day 4: Draw a dinner plate on paper or cardboard.  Divide the dinner plate into sections, showing how much of each kind of food should be found on every dinner plate.  You should label or decorate the plate in any way you like, even drawing examples of the food or making cut-outs of examples of food, to stick on the plate.

Day 5:  Write a sample menu for one day for a person your age.  List items you can eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.  Make sure you include all of the food groups, in the proportions that are most healthy for someone like you. Type the menu and decorate it any way you like.

Print and/or illustrate all of these projects, staple them together, and turn them in all at once.  Good luck!

Homeschooler holiday wish list for 2010

I feel like I just pulled the last pine needle out of the carpet yesterday, and it’s time to start the holidays all over again! And yet it’s comforting to think of all of the fun family times ahead…the cinnamon cookies, the crackling fireplace, the coconut Egg Nog (stay tuned for the recipe), the carolers, the snowfall (well, I can dream…) and all of the wonderful feelings of the season.  Joy to the world!  I truly do look forward to doing it all over again, if only the shopping could become a little easier…

Don’t get me wrong. I love shopping. It’s one of my favorite past-times and I freely admit shopping when happy, sad, anxious, bored, and most any time at all.  But – don’t you agree that shopping has become harder and harder?  Finding that perfect gift is like mining for diamonds…seldom do you find it, but you can die trying.

Although “gift cards” are all the rage, for a variety of reasons, I do not like giving them as gifts.  I’ll do it, but only as a last resort.  I much prefer a thoughtful, hand-selected, beautifully wrapped package accompanied by the delight (I hope) of watching the recipient open it up.

Fortunately, homeschooled kids are not all that hard to buy for. In fact, I can honestly say that over the years the children of homeschooled families have been the easiest to please.  Birthday parties, classroom prizes, and holiday gifts are a breeze when a child is homeschooled because these children pretty much appreciate everything you give them, not to mention that they see the value in just about anything at all.  I recall some years ago watching the kids in a rather large homeschooling group open gifts from a grab bag.  Not a single one of them had a negative thing to say…that’s saying a lot for children of all ages.  It was a proud moment.

By popular demand (okay, only 3 people, but in the blog world that makes me popular…), I am reprinting my homeschooler holiday wish list from last year.  With a few revisions, that is.  I hope that you find it as useful as last year’s, and use it as your guide when shopping for your favorite homeschooling families this go-round.  Do add any other ideas you have in my COMMENT section.   I’ll be sure to add them on to next year’s list.  Happy shopping!

[Reprinted from last year, with some additions, too.]

Alright, let’s face it head-on. Like millions of other kids this time of year, your kids are looking forward to the gifts. This is not to say that your holiday traditions, many which focus on the “real” meaning of Christmas and family togetherness, are not valuable and cherished. But, in truth, there is no denying that the part children love most at this time of year is – the gifts. That’s right, I went there.

Having gotten that out of the way, what do your homeschoolers want for Christmas? Not unlike other children their age, their lists probably include cell phones and digital cameras, Transformers and Zhu Zhu pets, boots and clothing, WiiPoints cards, and any number of popular consumer items. But, the similarities end there.

Have you ever thought about what makes homeschoolers different when it comes to gift giving? After all, how many other kids on the block do you predict would be happy receiving the next fascinating book in a series or a beguiling box full of science projects? Off the top of your head, can you even name 2 people who are out shopping for building kits and origami sets right now?

Not knocking popular consumer items, because we all buy and enjoy them. But, after picking up the latest CD or video game, what else can you buy your homeschooler for Christmas? Here are my top picks for homeschooler gift-giving this holiday season:

Memberships and passes of any kind: Think IMAX movie bundles, theme park tickets, museum passes with reciprocal agreements, zoo memberships, and things of this nature. This is really the gift that keeps on giving.

Kits you make yourself: Forget those pricey boxed sets that are so beautifully packaged but actually contain very little inside. Think specifically of the child’s interests and purchase only those truly practical items that are needed for the project or craft you have in mind. Scrap-booking kits, sewing kits, art kits, and wood working kits are a few of the obvious ones. Stretch your imagination just a little bit farther to put together nature and wildlife observation kits, solar powered vehicle kits, Egyptian pyramid building kits, glittery mosaic making kits, fun dough and other kitchen chemistry type kits, and Japanese Anime drawing kits, too.

Games: Games, particularly portable board games (as opposed to anything attached to a TV or computer), can be an important part of any homeschooler’s existence. Because homeschooling families tend to be larger-than-average and often spend more time together, board games are a staple in the homeschooling household and can be a very appropriate gift for kids (and their parents) who become bored with the same old games week after week. Be sure to include thinking and strategy games for homeschooling kids, like chess, OthelloRISKMancala and others of this nature. Parent’s Choice award winners are always a good pick. Don’t hesitate to buy games that require more players than you have kids, either. These are the ones you’ll tote in the car for park days and homeschooling meetings so that your child can play with friends.

Physical activities: If you don’t already have these in your garage, consider purchasing new outdoor toys to keep your homeschooler fit and healthy. If a new bicycle is too expensive this year, consider a new skateboard or roller blades. Yard games like badminton, horse shoes, or volley ball can be fun if you have enough players. For smaller families, a Tetherball, soccer goal, or baseball trainer may be more appropriate. Include smaller items like jump ropes, bubble soaps, and those hook-and-loop catcher’s mitts, too, for taking along to the park or playing with friends. Don’t forget safety gear, like helmets and pads, as part of the gift. You can never go wrong with anything involving fitness and play.

Anything that recognizes your child’s special talents: You know your child best. Whether it is composing music on an electronic keyboard or drawing and animating dragons using computer software, make it happen for your homeschooler this year. Is there something you have observed about your child over the past few months? An aptitude for creative writing perhaps? A talent for public speaking maybe? Think of gifts that promote and encourage those skills for the coming year. If a classy set of leather bound journals and expensive writing utensils sounds exactly like the ticket you need for a budding, young writer, spend a little bit extra to recognize and reward this kind of intelligence. On the other hand, if a battery-operated microphone and a full-length mirror might get your child going, consider buying that instead. Your child will thank you for noticing, and you’ll experience the fulfillment of letting them grow into who they need to be.

Something school-like: Though it may surprise you, homeschooled kids sometimes wonder what it might be like to go to school. In particular, things like riding a school bus, carrying a backpack, and having a little plastic case full of school supplies sound like they might just be a lot of fun. If you think your child falls into this category, you might consider a gift of school supplies or some other school-like experience. Tickets to a camp or activity at a local school, zoo, or museum – maybe even one requiring riding a bus, is something to consider. Purchasing a back-to-school kit, including a trendy new backpack and other kinds of items found on a typical public school supply list, could also satisfy this need. Just because you are committed to homeschooling doesn’t mean your child cannot enjoy some of the simple pleasures of a more mainstream lifestyle.

**New** Favorites for this year:

Any CRANIUM game:  I have never seen one of these fail.  There are new games coming out all the time. Great, great.

Dr. Drew’s Blocks: Yes, even for older kids. These little wooden blocks attract lots of people every time you take them out…so, be sure to purchase the BIG set.

A Day Out: Take the gift child (only) somewhere they have always wanted to go.  How often have you had to explain that the cost of going somewhere/doing something was too great for the entire family to afford? A special outing to a concert, a theme park, a workshop,or a sporting event can be even more special when the gift child gets to go with you.  Think of spa days, go-kart rides, a train trip, a skiiing lesson, or anything your child has wished for in the past.

100 Classic Books: Great choice for the gamer in your life (see my previous post).

Magazine Subscriptions: I sometimes do not like giving subscriptions because they take too long to arrive. But, if the child is old enough to understand the whole delayed gratification aspect, and even better if you can wrap a copy of the magazine to give along with the subscription, it makes an awesome gift.  There are too many great publications to list them all here, but find one of specific interest to the child getting it.  I particularly love Boomerang.  You can often get great deals on magazines thru fund-raisers, too, helping a cause at the same time.

ANYTHING from either Jim Weiss or Odds Bodkin.

Lessons: These make great grandparent gifts and combined/group gifts.  With horseback riding and cello lesson prices really “up there”, asking several people to contribute toward an 8-week session or a semester’s worth of lessons makes for a very thoughtful and practical gift idea.   Consider also classes offered through local ed departments, for fun and enrichment, in an area a child would really enjoy (martial arts? card making? painting? jewelry making? chess?).

Useless Junk:   How many times has your child asked for something seen on TV or some useless little toy from the store, but you have refused, deeming the item too junky or worthless?  Now would be the time to indulge.  Fanciful little things, like those found in dollar stores, pharmacy chains and checkout lines, may not last long but can bring a big smile to the faces of children who have been wishing for these trinkets for a while.   They may not last as long as wooden train sets or promote as much creativity as inter-locking blocks, but they can bring about [temporary] happiness as long as they’re still around.

Room decorations: Kids love to personalize spaces and there are some awfully cute wall stickers, coordinated bed sets and fun storage containers on the market now.   Teen rooms can be decorated for peanuts using some of those fuzzy folding chairs, brightly-colored coffee tables and lamps, and very cool rugs out there, too.  I love the idea of children doing their own mini room “makeovers”!  You can provide the supplies and let them run wild.  [Tip: funky shower curtains can be used on windows and table tops, too!]

Whatever the gift, rest easy knowing that your child will appreciate the time and effort you put into his or her gifts this year.  Children who are the product of homeschooling families come to appreciate the thoughtfulness, practicality and cost of holiday gifts and are sure to enjoy whatever you select with them in mind. Just don’t forget the batteries!

Geek Mom

I remember as a teenager going to the home of some children I was asked to babysit.  The purpose of my visit that day was not to babysit, but for the mom to check me out before she trusted me with her children later that month.  I remember she told me that she and her husband were attending a marriage “encounter”.    I remember smiling sheepishly as I didn’t understand what that meant, plus it sounded X-rated so I didn’t want to appear that I knew what it was anyway.

I was asked to sit at the kitchen table while the mother, complete with hair “flip”, frilly apron and that 70′s red lipstick forming a perfect heart on her top lip, grilled me with questions and simultaneously showed me how she ran things around the house.

Flip Mom moved from topic to topic, talking about everything from safety to bedtimes to the childrens’ toilet habits.  She showed me where things were kept, and let me know what I could touch, and what I could not.  Flip Mom said no to TV, but said that she might make an exception that night, and would let me know when I arrived on babysitting night.  Although I badly wanted the job, I remember thinking I was working awfully hard for it, what with having to endure all of the unpaid “training” and all.

As I sat there that day, I observed this little family, the mother and her two girls, going about their activities.  I can still picture the scene in my mind of those two little girls, impeccably dressed, hair done up, reading story books at the table, as their mother served them sliced apples and celery sticks on a tray.  When the youngest begged for a treat, Flip Mom gave them each a miniature piece of candy right out of the freezer, explaining that the Halloween candy was taken out only on special occasions, and even then only one piece at a time.  I remember wondering if this woman thought that I might stuff her children full of chocolate while she was gone, and made a mental note to completely stay away from the freezer that night, just in case.

It was a small house, and I could see into almost every room right from the kitchen.  I saw learning paraphernalia all over the place, and even spied an old record player (that’s right, 45′s) in the next room surrounded by what the girls told me were classical records scattered all over the floor.  There were few  “toys” there, and most everything  seemed to have a purpose, a learning purpose.  To me, way back then, there didn’t seem to me to be anything fun; and  I admit feeling sorry for those girls, thinking those poor children must have had a dreadful life.  They looked happy enough, but Flip Mom obviously made their lives miserable.

Fast forward a decade or two and I became a mom myself.   I busied myself with things like safety, bedtimes and toilet habits.  I served apples and celery sticks and I hid Halloween candy in the freezer. I limited TV and littered my home with learning gadgets of all kinds.  In fact, classical is still the music of choice during lunchtime here, even though our music now comes from CDs played over a boom-box on the kitchen counter. And though my children are almost grown up, I confess that I still like them neatly dressed and it frankly bothers me when their hair isn’t combed.

As I look around my home and think about my parenting style, I realize that I am not much different from that Flip Mom of many years ago.  Thought I never used babysitters, I am pretty sure I would have grilled them the same way that  the 70′s mom grilled me.   I want only the best for my children, as she did for hers.  I make decisions based on what I think is right just like she did.  And you can’t tell me I am too rigid or over-protective – I’m a mom and it’s in my job description.

I recently posted on a mom’s group a confession about myself.  I admitted that I stink when it comes to planning social activities but that I’m great at planning classes and field trips, or anything involving learning for that matter.  Though I enjoy having vino with the girls  and chatting on the telephone with old friends, I am much more comfortable planning a writing lesson or talking about school.  In fact, I refer to myself as “Geek Mom” , which I just a moment ago realized is the full-blown modern equivalent of Flip Mom, only with a different ‘do’.

I look back to my babysitting years and think, “Wow!  What a great mom she was, that Flip Mom.”  She knew what was right and she did it, no excuses to me or anyone.  And though my public school upbringing and my teenager mind-set couldn’t see it back then, I see it so clearly now.   She was great.  And her children were extraordinary.  And mine are, too.  I get it.  I am Geek Mom and I am fine with it.

I ended up making three dollars on babysitting night.  The money was handed to me in a tiny envelope, wrapped in a little bitty Hallmark gift card, like the kind you attach to a baby shower gift.  It had a kitten on top and, inside, was written, “THANKS!” all in caps.  Flip Mom had trusted me, like she trusted herself.  I didn’t understand her then, but I so understand her right now.

Are kids ever “on level”?

Everybody knows that no two kids are ever alike.  Whether we’re talking about sports, music, having artistic talent or any of the normally considered to be extra-curricular pursuits, there isn’t a parenting blog or educational professional around country that wouldn’t agree – kids just develop at different rates.  No two children should be expected to have that same kind of talent as other kids at the exact same time – right?

Yet, when it comes to academics, comparing kids is the norm.  We know it doesn’t feel quite right to compare our children to everyone else’s.  But when teachers, publishers and test-makers print up the standards, it is impossible not to wonder how our kids are stacking up.

I think that as long as children are  ”on level”, even above, parents are fine with that.  It can be a great relief to hear that kids fit the model of what a typical child of that age looks and acts like.  It’s not likely you’ll meet a parent willing to dispute grades or tests on the basis that results are too high.  We trust grade levels when our kids meet or exceed them.

On the other hand, when a child isn’t on level, or worse – is below – it hurts.  Barring special learners who are different for other reasons, for the most part, parents know in their hearts when there isn’t anything really wrong with a child.  But, because the grade level manual says so, they concede that there actually must be.   There really must be something wrong with this child.

This makes me sad.  I worry when I hear parents talk about how their child is a year “ahead” of other kids.  But I am sad when I hear parents talk about children who are “behind”.

I have observed the body language and felt the palpable shame of parents who think they have one of these below-level children.  I have watched as the other mothers chatter about good grades and above-average abilities while the mothers of the below-level kids turn very quiet.

Kids bloom at different rates, no question about it.  Deep-down, parents know this.  They understand that some 5 year olds can tie shoe-laces but others still can’t.   They don’t care if some girls can braid their own hair while others can’t get the hang of it until they’re much older.  They know that some boys aren’t afraid of the ball, but some boys would do anything not to get hit.  And they make no excuses for a child who hasn’t a musical bone in her body but is really good at drama instead.

And yet book publishers and test makers hold out this imaginary measuring stick and parents coast to coast voluntarily reach for it.  Worse, they buy into the results, hook, line and sinker.  I don’t get it.

Grade levels are classifications given to school children. When you think about it, grade levels aren’t really anything but numbers used to classify, label, or otherwise brand children for the purpose of tracking milestones and monitoring school progression.

In homeschooling, although many parents do it anyhow, grade levels aren’t exactly required.  That’s not to say that nobody keeps track of how many years of homeschooling a child has completed, or what that child may be capable of overall, but generally speaking, grade levels just aren’t as important.

In homeschooling, grades can be useful, for instance when approximating the kind of work that could be covered in a given year. They can also be very handy when buying books and materials that children of that age (grade) are probably capable of handling.

But grade levels should not be limiting.

If a particular child is not ready for grade-level work, why insist upon it?  If another student is more than ready to hop a grade, maybe even two, why wait?

There is something about grades that is ingrained in the minds of some parents, particularly those who know nothing but grades from their own experience. This has the harmful effect of classifying children into groups where they sometimes do not belong.  What magical transformation takes place during the summer months that suddenly merits moving a human being from one group (grade) to the next?  Maybe the transformation took place months earlier.  Or maybe it won’t happen until winter break.

Think loosely about grades in homeschool.  While grade level can be an excellent guide, do not be locked into what other children in the same grade can or [you believe] should be doing.  Every child is unique, and will be ready to join his grade-level counterparts soon enough. Pressing him harder than he is ready can backfire tremendously.  Holding him in a grade too long can have equally devastating effects.

A characteristic of the normal child is he doesn’t act that way very often.  ~Author Unknown

Test practice helps prevent choking

This isn’t about the debate over whether homeschoolers should or should not be tested.  It’s about giving homeschooled kids test practice before asking them to perform on standardized tests that really ”matter”.

Some homeschooling families choose to test the children to measure achievement, mastery, performance, or to predict success in some area.  In fact, in some states, standardized tests of this kind are required.

In other homeschooling households, however, testing children is viewed as unnecessary.  The thinking there is that parents already know their kids well and do not need a test to explain how they are doing.  Many homeschooling moms and dads don’t assign grades, either, but that’s the subject of another article altogether.

Nevertheless, once the children reach high school, starting somewhere around 10th grade, some rather important testing begins to take place.  With few exceptions, college-bound students need to take these tests.   This is where the testing practice comes in.  Though there are probably plenty of homeschoolers who test well without practice, there are probably more who would benefit greatly from an occasional bubble test or a timed drill.

Test practice allows a student to experience the motions and emotions of taking a test.   Scores are also said to increase every time a student takes the same test over and over, a bonus side-effect of this kind of practice.

In a new book, author Sian Beilock talks about how how not to “choke” in high pressure situations. I have followed her work for some time and can tell you that Dr. Beilock is the leader in the field of research on this topic.

On the other hand, you don’t need to buy a book to understand that practice really does make perfect in this case.  There are many practice booklets for PSAT, SAT, and other standardized examinations.  You can also enroll a child in a prep course, have them read online study guides,  take practice tests, and so on.  Practice gives the student a leg up on content, format, and most importantly – how not to choke.

Over-protective or good parenting?

A child is injured on the playground but his parents aren’t there to help.  A group of children misbehave in a department store with no parent nearby to notice.  No doubt, everyone has experienced one of those uncomfortable moments at least once – when someone else’s kids appear to be need of supervision, but the parents are nowhere in sight.

On the flip side, the term “helicopter parenting” was invented for a reason.  The polar opposite of absentee parenting, the helicopter parent hovers so closely that children are scarcely allowed to do anything on their own.

Homeschooling moms and dads have been compared to the helicopter-variety of parents, alleging they watch too closely and overly-monitor everything their children do.  Many have accused homeschoolers of being too over-protective and preventing children from developing “normally”, by their standards, that is.

Are homeschooling moms and dads just being good parents or are they really over-the-top?

Everyone knows that one of the great benefits of homeschooling is that parents can pick and choose the experiences that they want for their kids.  Whether choosing which books to read, which families to meet at the park, or what field trips and classes to register for, homeschooling parents have the freedom to customize the experience to fit within whatever guidelines and standards they have set for the family.   Is this excessive?  Not really.  Actually, it’s pretty ideal when you think about it.

If given the chance, most parents would probably enjoy the chance to remain involved in their kids’ lives a little longer.  Is there anything really wrong with deciding if a child is ready for a PG-rated movie or if a child should really go on that sleep-over at some unknown friend’s house?  What about helping to decide whether or not a teen’s choice of boyfriend/girlfriend is a good one?  No parent would argue with these choices, yet it is common for parents of public schoolers to accuse homeschooling families of harmful family over-management.

It comes as no coincidence that homeschoolers meet and schedule their play-dates in the mornings before the school buses full of children come out.  It isn’t wrong, clique-ish or snobby; it’s just a practical way to minimize contact with children raised differently from their own.  It isn’t harmful to watch how children interact on the playground or gently guide a child toward a different type of activity when things aren’t going quite right – it’s just another teachable moment for a child and modeling good behavior from a parent.

As a side note, homeschoolers are huge users of team sports, enrichment courses, and community programs; thus, they don’t entirely shut children off from other people, they merely choose experiences wisely.

When you think about it, what homeschoolers do isn’t any different than parents choosing Montessori schools because they like the kinds of families these schools attract or encouraging their children to join a youth group in order to find other kids with similar attitudes and interests.  Every good parent knows what they want for their kids, it’s just that homeschoolers are better able to control situations because they are closer by.

Before anyone judges another parent, homeschooler or not, it is important to remember that most parents are only trying hard to do what they think is best.  In the case of homeschooling moms and dads, what is best is keeping an eye on their kids.

[I have written many articles for online and print publications. This article originally appeared here.]

Nature studies

Among the many ways that families choose to homeschool, many of these involve outside time or, “nature studies”, relying on experiences in the  physical world to spark the curiosity of children and ignite learning about something new.

Many families are familiar with Charlotte Mason’s work, and build regular outside time into the homeschooling schedule every day.  No matter whose philosophy you endorse, how often you get out, and where you live for that matter,  there is always something interesting to see – and study – in the outdoors.

The fellow in this photo stopped at my home recently to grab some lunch.  Imagine the questions, examination and research that took place over the 45 minutes or so as my family watched his lunch disappear, and again later in the day as we discovered lost binoculars, flipped through field guides and re-read reptile pamphlets we had tucked away from our last visit to the state park.

Anyone can make outside time a regular and important part of learning.  It’s easy, inexpensive and immediately applicable to real life.

No points awarded for being too busy

There are normal busy families.  And then there are over-the-top busy families.  Which one are you?  If you are reading this article, you probably already know.

I’ll be blunt.  Being an extraordinarily busy family isn’t a really a good thing.  Last time I checked, being busy doesn’t make anyone happier, better looking, more popular, richer, thinner or smarter.  Being busy doesn’t make children better than anyone else’s children.  And I haven’t read any research that says that being busy makes anyone a better parent or a better homeschooler, either.

It’s as if someone, somewhere, was awarding points for being busy.  And lots of people, mainly women, are frantically trying to earn those points.

Well, I have some bad news.  There aren’t any points and there aren’t any prizes, either.  The only reward for ultra busy families is a combination of exhaustion and a thousand lost opportunities.  As I said before, not good.

I think there are a couple of things going on here.   See if any of these may describe you.  Then see if you can use these words as a springboard for change.

Being busy outside the home, at least for some, appears to be a reason (dare I say excuse?) for not doing the things you probably ought to be doing instead.  Isn’t there a saying about being alone with yourself? Are you deep-down possibly worried about being home alone, having to keep the kids busy all day? Would you prefer not to have to plan a difficult lesson by yourself or face teaching a subject you aren’t very good at? Is it that you’d just rather not have to clean the house (go to work, wash the dog, whatever it may be) today?  Could it be that you’re avoiding that stack of bills, list of phone calls, or whatever else you dread having to do? Certainly going out and keeping busy can be exhausting, but at times it can be a whole lot more fun than staying home.

Next, I think there is some kind of philosophy floating around that goes something like this: “If I expose my children to more things, they will eventually get good at more things.”  Think about this one, because it all depends on your definition of “good”.  If getting good at something just means knowing about it, then I suppose you’re right.  But if it means actually gaining some level of mastery, enjoyment, or seeing some future in the possibility of continuing the activity, then this is preposterous!  Sure, there’s always a chance that a child may pick up a skill by taking a class or going to weekly lessons.  But, there are plenty of skills that kids can pick up at home, too, and many that start right in the living room (or on the computer, playing in the yard, watching educational television, or by reading a book) without having to leave the house at all.

Finally, I think that women in particular, but men too, need to recognize their own need to get out more often.  This need is seen in one of two ways.  Either parents live through their children, keeping them very busy in order to experience the activity themselves.  Or, by keeping children busy as a way to satisfy their own social or emotional needs. Meaning, while the child is busy, mom or dad gets to hang out with all of the other moms and dads.

There is nothing wrong with being busy. I am busy and I mean no disrespect to others who are, too.  But if you find yourself in the over-the-top category of busy, especially if you aren’t happy with how hectic your life has become, please take my words to heart.  Slow down. Say no once in a while. And find other ways to satisfy social needs if those exist.  Your children will not suffer a bit. In fact, they’ll appreciate having you more than all of the other things you do.